- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

The Arab world made small but noticeable steps toward greater political liberty this year, in spite of a war in Iraq and instability across the region, according to an authoritative survey released yesterday.

New York-based Freedom House, which publishes the annual review, also reported that 27 countries registered an improvement in political freedoms this year, compared with nine that regressed.

“The global picture thus suggests that the past year was one of the most successful for freedom since Freedom House began measuring in 1972,” the report’s authors noted.

President Bush, in his second inaugural address in January and in his support of Iraq’s fledgling government, has put democracy and political reform in the Islamic world at the center of his foreign policy.

In his White House press conference yesterday, Mr. Bush said Iraq’s successful parliamentary vote Thursday means that Baghdad “will become an ally in the war on terror and serve as a beacon for what is possible, a beacon of freedom in a part of the world that is desperate for freedom and liberty.”

The Freedom House analysis, which measures both political liberties and civil rights, suggests that Mr. Bush’s policies might be bearing fruit.

Lebanon, where U.S. and French pressure helped drive out Syria’s occupation force, moved from “not free” to “partly free” in the latest survey.

Although key U.S. Middle East allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt still are rated “not free,” the survey found genuine signs of political liberalization in many Arab lands.

Positive indicators include greater press freedoms in Saudi Arabia; improved elections in Iraq, Egypt and the Palestinian territories; and the introduction of women’s suffrage in Kuwait.

Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House, said it was hard to measure precisely how much U.S. policy contributed to improvements in the region, although he noted the Bush administration has been active in backing political liberalization in countries such as Egypt and Kuwait.

“Many people predicted that American policy in Iraq and elsewhere would set back the cause of freedom. This year’s results suggest that hasn’t been the case,” Mr. Puddington said.

Outside the Middle East, Indonesia — the country with the world’s largest Muslim population — was upgraded from “partly free” to “free” after staging a widely praised presidential election. Afghanistan’s new U.S.-backed government was improved from “not free” to “partly free.”

Two Asian U.S. allies — Thailand and the Philippines — were downgraded to “partly free” in the survey.

All told, Freedom House now rates half of the world’s 46 Muslim-majority nations as at least partially free. Just 30 percent scored that high in the same survey a decade ago.

Eight countries — Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — received the lowest possible scores in both political rights and civil liberties.

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