World’s worst autocracies named and explained

Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East are under threat, as a people's revolt in Tunisia spreads. But who are the world's worst autocrats?

'I know the government will shut down my organization if I continue to protest,' says Tawakul Karma, a Yemeni dissident. 'Then they will arrest me. They will probably kill me in prison. But I won't stop.'

It's this spirit that so threatens the President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has remained in power for 32 years by crushing all opposition.

He is not the only nervous ruler in the region. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt could be deposed any day now, but he has ruled for 30 years. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia assumed the throne six years ago, but governed as Prince Regent since 1996.

Each of these men is referred to as an 'autocrat' but what does that mean?

An autocracy is government where absolute power is held by a single individual. Their position may be supported by the military or a sham democracy, but at the centre is one person who has exclusive, unaccountable and arbitrary authority.

Not that the Middle East has a monopoly on autocracies; the planet is littered with them. In their recent survey, the Economist Intelligence Unit found that of the 167 countries in the world, there are 26 full democracies, 53 flawed democracies, 33 hybrid regimes and 55 autocracies.

Each of these autocracies is different, but the Economist Democracy Index sets out to grade them. It considers factors such as the independence of the courts, the freedom of the press, and women's and worker's rights. It asks whether business opportunities are confined to the leader's friends, and if the civil service and education system are independent of government.

Using these indicators, the ten worst autocracies in the world are, in reverse order: 10) Libya, 9) Iran 8) Equatorial Guinea, 7) Saudi Arabia, 6) The Central African Republic, 5) Myanmar (Burma), 4) Uzbekistan, 3) Turkmenistan, 2) Chad. Number One in the 'Worst autocracy in the world' chart is North Korea, ruled by Kim Jong il and possibly the most isolated community on earth.

Who's next?
The Committee to Protect Journalists offers another insight into tyranny by naming the ten most dangerous countries for bloggers, illustrated in the graphic above. Burma is considered the worst, but all these countries use detention, intimidation and regulation against free online expression.

Predicting revolutions is not an exact science. But maybe the states most ripe for change are those where repression is moderate and access to the internet unrestricted. For autocracies, offering a taste of freedom is a dangerous thing.

You Decide

  1. Is democracy always best? Can there be a good autocracy?
  2. 'The internet will bring down every tyranny. Autocrats can't survive this new communication.' Discuss.


  1. Imagine you are living in an autocracy and planning a revolution. What technology would you use? Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr etc? What are the strengths of each? As leader, write an e-mail to send to your fellow protesters, outlining your plans.
  2. The Sun newspaper has asked you to do a short piece for them comparing autocracy and democracy. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

Some People Say...

“Some countries just need a strong man.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So how do autocrats gain power?
Well, some are hereditary like the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia. But President Mugabe, who has been the unopposed dictator in Zimbabwe since 1980, originally came to power through elections. He was elected in – and then ensured that no one could elect him out.
And the top ten democratic countries?
In reverse order, they are: 10) Netherlands, 9) Canada, 8) Switzerland, 7) Finland, 6) Australia, 5) New Zealand, 4) Sweden, 3) Denmark, 2) Iceland and at No.1, Norway!
So where's the UK?
No.19. We've climbed since 2008, when we were ranked at 21.
So who was the last autocrat in Britain?
Well, everyone will have an opinion. For me, it's either Henry 8th or Oliver Cromwell. After them, the power of rulers was increasingly restricted.

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