The world was a less free place last year despite the toppling of dictators in the Middle East, which represented the "most significant challenge to authoritarian rule since the fall of Soviet Communism", according to a report.
The Freedom in the World report – produced annually by the NGO Freedom House – showed that while the Arab Spring brought major gains for political rights and civil liberties, there have also been "harsh and sometimes murderous reaction[s]" to the uprisings in the Middle East, China and other regions.
Overall, the levels of freedom enjoyed by people in 26 countries declined in 2011, while only 12 showed a net improvement, according to the report. It is the sixth consecutive year in which the number of countries becoming "less free" has outnumbered those becoming more so.
"The Middle East is a part of the world that has been immobile and apathetic for decades. But now, things are actually happening that are probably the most important gains for freedom in a decade," said Arch Puddington, Freedom House's vice-president for research.
"On balance, there has been a slight decline across the world but in the key areas, there has been a move towards freedom. In areas untouched by the democratic revolution, you are seeing movement, so it is encouraging.
"In Tunisia and Egypt, gains this year can turn into retreats in the future," added Mr Puddington. "One of the world's biggest threats is Egypt, it is a huge challenge. There are elections, the constitution will be written and the formation of a government is ahead, all potentially major challenges to freedom. It is the most important country in the Arab world. And it also represents the biggest opportunity for the future."
He identified Syria as a major security issue and added: "we are concerned about democracies which are slipping: Ukraine, Turkey and South Africa, for example."
The report examines the ability of individuals to exercise political and civil rights in a total of 195 countries and 14 territories around the world, based on the events of last year. It assigns each a score out of seven and a status of free – the lower score the freer – partly free, or not free.
The countries are then ranked according to the change in the level of freedom enjoyed compared to 2010.