- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 29, 2002

On March 20, Salim Ahmedi, 22, did something he had never done before: He went to a party. Not a big deal in most places, but the medical student lives in Kabul, which until last year was ruled by the fanatically medieval Taliban regime. "Now that Afghanistan is free," he told a reporter, "I think we will have more parties like this one."
They're not the only people celebrating. This was a year in which many people around the world got to do things their governments had not allowed them to do before, particularly letting them choose their own governments. And given the opportunity, they chose rulers who were generally more congenial to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The human-rights group Freedom House confirms that trend in its definitive annual survey, released last week. "The highest-ever proportion of the world's population is living in freedom today," it says.
In 1972, when the organization published its first report, 35 percent of humanity lived in free countries. Now it's 44 percent, with another 21 percent living in countries classified as "partly free" and 35 percent not free. There are 121 democracies in the world today, or 63 percent of all the governments on Earth up from 40 percent 15 years ago.
Democracy has taken root in places that were once deemed fatally inhospitable like Africa, where 42 of 48 sub-Saharan countries have held multiparty elections since 1990, according to the World Bank. This year, the ruling party lost a presidential election in Mali and took the unusual step of handing over power. The opposition won elections in Senegal.
Sierra Leone, after concluding a civil war that was infamous for a rebel army's policy of mutilating its enemies, held elections for parliament and president. On Election Day, indomitable voters whose hands had been chopped off showed up to mark ballots with their toes.
In Zimbabwe, though, Robert Mugabe extended his 22-year lease on power by winning an election widely denounced as a fraud. When white farmers resisted his corrupt and brutal land-reform program, he ordered them to stop farming a novel strategy for a country in the grip of famine.
Latin America also saw fitful progress. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez emerged from jail after foiling an attempted coup, but couldn't escape mass opposition to his rule. Today, the country is in the middle of a lengthy general strike aimed at forcing a referendum on his continuation in office. Brazil elected its first leftist leader in four decades, prompting victor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to declare, "Today I can say Brazil voted without fear of being happy."
Fear of happiness was a problem in the Arab world. A report by Arab experts faulted it for political tyranny, discrimination against "half its citizens" the female half and suppression of intellectual life. "The whole Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates," noted the Arab Human Development Report.
Freedom House says that in the Middle East and North Africa, "there has been virtually no significant progress toward democratization" in the last 30 years. There is still only one genuine democracy: Israel. In Saudi Arabia, students fleeing a fire at a girls' school were forced back into the building by religious police because some of their heads, in disregard of modesty, were uncovered. Fifteen girls died.
Iraq remained under the rule of Saddam Hussein, though he is rumored to be on his way out of office. Bahrain became the first Persian Gulf nation to allow women to vote. In Iran, students took part in mass antigovernment demonstrations after a reformist university professor was sentenced to death for saying Muslims should not follow religious leaders "blindly."
Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf held parliamentary elections under decrees that protected him by banning his chief rivals, along with the 98 percent of Pakistanis who lack a college degree. "Pakistan," noted a report by European election observers, "appears to be the only country in the world where candidates can be disqualified for unpaid utility bills."
East Timor, one of the newest and smallest countries, managed something that has yet to occur in the world's biggest country free elections. China, by contrast, changed leaders without troubling its people for their input. Adapting rapidly to modern technology, the Beijing government was found to lead the world in censoring the Internet. Today, says Freedom House, nearly 60 percent of the human beings who are not free have one thing in common: They're Chinese.
But the people of China weren't born with saddles on their backs, destined to serve their betters. One of these days they are bound to arise and join the party the rest of the world has been enjoying without them the democratic party.

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