By Stella Dawson

WASHINGTON, Sept 17 (TrustLaw) - Democratic governance declined throughout the world in 2011, showing that gains made in the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring are very fragile and in its chaotic aftermath leaders may slip back into authoritarian rule, a U.S. watchdog group said on Monday.

Only Tunisia has improved markedly its overall governance score amongst the Middle East-North African countries that were surveyed in the latest Countries at the Crossroads report published by Freedom House. Bahrain slipped backward and Egypt edged up only slightly.

Worldwide, declines in the quality of governance far exceeded improvements, led by a worsening of government accountability and the rule of law in civil and criminal matters, the U.S. research group said.

The deterioration raises an alarm for pro-democracy advocates who had hoped that the overthrow of brutal authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt marked a dramatic breakthrough, said Vanessa Tucker, project director.

"It is unclear whether the popular dismissal of the old models of authoritarianism will translate into enduring public support for novice representative government and contentious institutional reforms," she said.

"There are limits to citizen's patience with respect to political instability, economic disruption and physical insecurity, and the desire to return to a less chaotic environment may allow the leaders to slip back into the familiar habits of authoritarian rule."

The Freedom House measure is used widely by development groups in helping them decide whether a government can use foreign assistance effectively. The report covers the period from April 2009 to December 2011.

Four criteria are used to assess the 72 countries surveyed in the Countries at the Crossroads - accountability and public voice; civil liberties; rule of law; and anti-corruption and transparency. Half of the countries are updated each year, while Egypt and Tunisia were surveyed for both the past two years.

Freedom House says a country score of 5 out of a total of 7 is the minimum standard for effective democratic governance, which it views as essential to an open, just and prosperous society.

In the latest report, Tunisia improved in all categories led by a sharp rise in accountability and public voice, pushing its overall country ranking to 4.11 from around 2.36 before the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. One area of concern the report flagged was women's rights saying Islamist political parties have stoked fears of a rollback in existing rights.

While it uses monitors and experts on the ground and an advisory board, such rankings can be controversial accused of imposing subjective and Western viewpoints.

Accountability and public voice also rose in Egypt after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, but other measures were flat leading to only a small rise to 2.25 from 1.98 the prior year, despite open elections. Restrictions on the media, hostility to non-governmental organizations and efforts to restrain women's political activity through "virginity checks" by the military were cited as areas of concern.

Bahrain, once seen as one of the more developed countries, saw its measures decline across the board pulling its country average down to 2.03, the level of pre-uprising Syria, from a recent peak of 3.27 in 2004.

Other findings in the report were:

* Latin America saw increases in violence and organized crime hurting scoring in the countries surveyed there. The trend included high rates of violence against journalists in Mexico and Honduras, and growing interference by organized crime in the electoral process in Guatemala and Mexico.

* Asia suffered major setbacks in the face of power grabs by the executive branch and ruling parties, particularly in Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Freedom of expression was also constricted as the Indonesian and Cambodian governments and others cracked down on the media.

* South Africa, suffered score declines from the increasing dominance of the ruling African National Congress and the government's efforts to limit media freedom. Electoral abuses in Malawi and Uganda, in addition to growing corruption in Tanzania, were also responsible for significant score drops in African countries assessed in the latest report.

(Reporting by Stella Dawson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)