Democracy Didn’t Need COVID-19 to Begin Its Decline

Two examples of the state of democracy in the Middle East — one positive, the other negative — tell us something about how the world is evolving.
Democracy decline, Freedom House, democracy, Israeli news, Israel news, Israel democracy, Benjamin Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu news, Tunisia, Peter Isackson

Benjamin Netanyahu in Brussels, Belgium on 12/11/2017. © Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

Middle East Monitor features an article by American-Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud, who celebrates Tunisia’s progress as a democracy. The author cites recent data produced by two independent agencies that monitor the state of democracy in the world. He makes a point of comparing the North African nation that set off the short-lived phenomenon known as the Arab Spring in 2010-11 with another nation that has traditionally claimed to be the only democracy in the Middle East: Israel.

Freedom House is an organization funded by the US government that conducts research on democracy across the globe. Its declared mission is to promote democratic change. Its motto is “Expanding Freedom and Democracy.” It recently released its “Freedom in the World 2020” report that tracks the evolution of democratic and autocratic trends. This year’s report, which came out prior to the coronavirus pandemic, bears the ominous subtitle, “Democracy and pluralism are under assault.”

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The report honors Tunisia in its list of “countries in the spotlight” with this comment: “Competitive presidential and parliamentary elections reinforced the country’s democratic institutions, though a state of emergency remained in place due to the ongoing threat of terrorism.” The report confirms Tunisia’s “status as the only Free country in the region other than Israel.”

Though still cited as a democracy, Israel appears in a somewhat less “free” light. The report places its account of Israel’s current situation under the heading, “Division and dysfunction in democracies.” After describing the path toward autocracy consciously pursued by the discredited but apparently unsinkable prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the report notes that “Israel’s score has slipped six points since 2009, an unusually large decline for an established democracy.”

Baroud notes this specific finding of the report: “Israel was classified among the world’s 25 ‘declining democracies’, which, unsurprisingly, include the United States as well.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Weakening in the race competitive nations are in to prove themselves better than others or simply to remain consistent with its own ideals. Decline can reflect either a tendency towards increasing chaos or the erosion of the official core values through corruption and hypocrisy.

Contextual note

Baroud begins his article by calling Tunisia “the Middle East’s greatest success story.” He bases this not only on the Freedom House report, but also on a comparative study of democracies produced by the Swedish organization V-Dem Institute (Varieties of Democracy). V-Dem gave the title “Autocratization Surges — Resistance Grows” to its “Annual Democracy Report 2019.” The report concludes that, while exceptions such as Tunisia exist, democratic practices globally are in a state of decline. This is a worrying development particularly at a time when the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is threatening to undermine the prosperity of democracies, with the possible effect of encouraging the trend toward authoritarian practices.

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V-Dem cites Tunisia alongside Armenia and Sudan as countries “where we have observed substantial democratic progress.” Tunisia appears to be the only country touched by the Arab Spring that has managed to maintain, under pressure, a commitment to democratic principles. V-Dem describes it as “the star pupil of democratization of the past ten years,” an accolade that has even more meaning when compared with its North African and Middle Eastern neighbors.

This indicates real progress but should not be interpreted as a clean bill of health. The report lists Tunisia among several other countries that “remain on the verge of meeting the criteria for inclusion in the group of liberal democracies again.” Even while celebrating Tunisia’s success, Baroud describes it as a “politically unstable country” that “is still undergoing a painful democratic transition.”

Historical note

The table with the title “Countries by Score On V-Dem’s Liberal Democracy Index” shows Tunisia well above Israel, though both are in the category “Top 20-30%.” Ramzy Baroud uses the comparison of the trends in both countries to highlight the particularly worrying decline of democracy in Israel. In the past year, marked by three successive inconclusive elections, the autocratic tendencies of Benjamin Netanyahu have never been more apparent. Despite his obvious contempt for democratic principles with regard to the Palestinian population, Netanyahu has benefited from the unconditional support of another leader of a democratic nation known for his own autocratic proclivities: US President Donald Trump.

The Freedom House report contains a long paragraph summarizing Netanyahu’s contribution to the decline of Israel’s democracy over the past 10 years. According to the report, the prime minister began from a position that placed him at “the vanguard of nationalistic and chauvinistic populism” when he returned to power in 2009. Tracing the logic of his actions over the past decade, the report lists the numerous ways Netanyahu has undermined the principles of democracy.

Among the many charges it makes against him, the report cites these facts: “Netanyahu has taken increasingly drastic steps to maintain the loyalty of far-right groups, entrenching and expanding West Bank settlements at the expense of the moribund Palestinian peace process, banning foreign activists based on their opposition to such policies, and enacting a discriminatory law that reserved the right of self-determination in Israel to the Jewish people.” The list goes on, culminating with Netanyahu’s indictment, confirmed by the supreme court, on three separate charges of corruption and his year-long struggle to secure immunity.

Yossi Verter, writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, predicts that Netanyahu’s maneuvering will, through various devious subterfuges, permit him to achieve his goal of immunity. He compares the prime minister first to “a bird of prey” and then to COVID-19: “Like a sophisticated political virus, Netanyahu attacks a party’s antibodies, time after time, and expunges them one by one until the body collapses.” Even after losing his majority in the Knesset, Netanyahu has managed to maintain a kind of psychological control over Israeli politics.

Verter cites the former director of the prime minister’s office, Yoav Horowitz, who resigned last year: “The damage Netanyahu plans to cause the state, democracy, the judicial system and anything built here in 70 years to escape justice is graver and more terrible than everything that happened to us in the most difficult war; it will take decades to fix.” In other words, whatever coalition takes over from now on, Israeli democracy is likely to remain in the state of decline the Freedom House report describes.

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In his article in for Middle East Monitor, Baroud highlights a finding mentioned in the V-Dem report: “According to the Swedish report’s ‘Political Corruption Index’, Israel is the 35th most politically corrupt country, followed immediately by Botswana in Southern Africa. Interestingly, the United Arab Emirates is six spots ahead of Israel in that category and one spot ahead of the United States.”

Baroud not only agrees with both of the reports that Israel has veered further and further away from the democratic ideals it claims to embrace, but he also concludes that the West’s commitment to backing Israel unconditionally on the pretext that it can be called a democracy has, all along, been either mistaken or hypocritical. He claims that “Israel never deserved the badge of democracy, which is used to rationalize all of its wars, sieges, and mistreatment of Palestinians, in the first place.”

As the coronavirus spreads chaos throughout the world, making it impossible for anyone to predict how geopolitics will evolve in the near future, we can at least imagine that when the dust finally settles, our perception of recent history may look a bit different than what we have been accustomed to. This could provide an opportunity to rethink many of our idées reçues concerning international relations. This would be particularly welcome with regard to the Middle East. 

If Donald Trump is reelected as president in November, it’s unlikely that US policy will be any different than it is today, unless the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic create a state of chaos in America that cripple its imperial reach and its ability to influence events in the rest of the world. There’s good reason to think that if Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden is elected, his foreign policy will be similar to Trump’s, though less abrasive. 

But given everything else that is happening, today’s civilization may find itself in tatters or radically transformed by the end of the year. That could mean that humanity itself, and all the nations it contains, will be engaged in rebuilding a society on new, more sustainable principles. It may indeed be that for the first time in nearly a century, a redesign of global civilization will become the challenge of the day, from which no nation or people will be excluded. If the politicians of today or tomorrow are not up to it, other social forces may find a way of getting the job started before, following the current disaster, the decline becomes even worse.

[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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