Democracy vs. Terrorism: A Reality Check

Democracy vs. Terrorism: A Reality Check

Study shows democratic reforms not a panacea in stopping terrorism.

As the world’s foremost secular progressive society the United States has great faith in the power of democracy to mitigate if not cure most of the world’s ills, terrorism among them. Though short-term tactics for counterterrorism include a mix of law enforcement, military, intelligence, and diplomacy, the long-term goal of eliminating terrorism ultimately comes down strategically, most of us implicitly seem to believe, to draining the “swamp” of failed, dictatorial states from which terrorist networks grow.

A new study by the Rand Corporation entitled More Freedom, Less Terror? Liberalization and Political Violence in the Arab World attempts to examine that philosophical premise empirically, addressing the question of precisely what impact the establishment of democratic forms of governance has had on terrorist activity in six Arab states- Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco. Click here to see full report.

“Our goal,” announce the report’s authors, “is to assess whether and how political liberalization and related civil liberties (or their absence) have affected the resort to and/or support for terrorism. Has the introduction of political reforms into the Arab Middle East alleviated terrorism and violent extremism? If so, in what ways and under what conditions? If not, why?”

The overarching finding of the study is that the actual impact of democratic reforms such as the institution of elections is highly dependent on the actual social context in which the reforms are carried out. Often in practice the report points out, “ Rather than fostering norms of tolerance, pluralism, and institutional inclusion, government-led reform processes in the Arab world often bring about intolerance and exclusionary political systems, contributing to, rather than undermining, support for political violence.”

In other words the semblance of democracy without the substance can often inflame rather than marginalize extremism. This is particularly the case when ruling regimes backtrack on promised reforms, or the “reforms” installed actually exacerbate or rationalize autocracy.

The report examines several common scenarios.

First, the report documents how “political openings can co-opt and moderate opposition forces and marginalize hard-liners, but not indefinitely if reforms fail to produce tangible results.” An instance of constructive reform, according to the report, is the case of Morocco, where the government has permitted the political participation of moderate Islamist parties, leading them toward accommodation with the government instead of confrontation.

In Jordan, however, while inclusion of the Islamist opposition into the political process has had a moderating effect, undercutting support for more radical elements within and outside the party, growing confrontation between the government and the Islamist opposition is providing ammunition for more hard-line elements, who question the benefits of participating in a political process that excludes them.

The report also notes instances of where political reforms have had little effect in promoting norms of tolerance, instead exacerbating existing societal cleavages.

“Although reform processes have in some cases had a moderating effect on the opposition,” the report says, “ their limited and controlled nature—and the fractured context in which they are operating in the Arab world— have resulted in a distinct absence of norms of tolerance and pluralism across all cases. Fear of growing Islamic power among governments and secular opposition movements is increasing intolerance of opposing groups and leading to crackdowns on freedom of expression.”

The report cites Egypt to illustrate this point. Egypt, it says, still suffers from significant tension and violence between its Muslim and Coptic communities, and Copts are generally opposed to any changes that would give Islamist groups further power, as they are unsure about whether political liberalization would actually lead to further protection of minority rights.

Another problematic result of having democracy in form but not in substance is that institutions in the Arab world are often controlled and exclusionary. In the Jordanian case, for example, the report maintains, “election laws are structured to systematically exclude and marginalize the Islamist opposition. In Algeria, institutional mechanisms, such as the official ban on Islamist parties from elections and political life, have forced the Islamic movement to the sidelines. Similarly, Islamic opposition groups have been consistently excluded from political participation in Egypt.

The report cites another example of how cosmetic reforms and backtracking erode regime legitimacy and ultimately contribute to political violence, in Algeria, where the nullification of elections in 1992 (in which the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win) led to the explosion of a civil war that engulfed the country in violence for nearly a decade.

Based on its comparative study of inchoate democratic institutions in the Middle East the report concludes that, beyond the forms and external trappings of democracy, rule of law and human rights are particularly critical factors in influencing calculations regarding political violence.

“ Although all aspects of reform in the Middle East have been limited,” it explains, “ some elements provoke more resentment than others. This is particularly true of those aspects related to rule of law and human rights. For example, close observers of Egyptian politics and the state’s struggle with violent groups view the protection of human rights and the rule of law as key elements of democracy, and as particularly important elements in boosting the legitimacy of the regime. In Bahrain, one of the most important, tangible initiatives that bolstered the credibility of the new emir when he came to power in 1999 appears to have been reforms in the judiciary, particularly the removal of the despised British chief of Bahraini security and increased freedom of the press.”

The mixed record of actual experiments in democratic governance in the region, along with destabilizing regional developments since the Iraq war and growing concerns about rising Iranian power and influence—have, the report notes, generated a backlash against “democracy promotion” in US policy circles.

As the report puts it, “Shoring up support from undemocratic Sunni Arab regimes to help stabilize Iraq and counter Iran appears to be a greater priority for US policymakers than democracy. The strong showing of Islamist movements in elections across the region, and particularly the HAMAS victory in the Palestinian elections, has only contributed to this trend. The growing consensus in Washington is that democracy is dangerous in this part of the world.”

The report cautions against this overreaction. Rather than step back from a belief in democracy in favor of more “efficient” repression US policy, it says, should pursue realistic democracy promotion.

“Our study suggests that a return to realism would be Shortsighted,” it declares. “Yes, there are dangers and risks inherent in reform processes in regions such as the Middle East, and our cases provide ample evidence to this effect. But there are also dangers in trying to stymie such processes. Indeed, one of the most dangerous triggers for radicalization and a resort to political violence is the backtracking on reform apparent across the region. This suggests that pressing ahead with genuine democratization, not just limited reforms, may stem extremism over time by bolstering the legitimacy of weak and vulnerable regimes.”

“Our suggestion that the United States maintain democracy promotion as a key foreign policy priority does not mean that we recommend a transformational policy of regime change or the imposition of democracy by force,” the report concludes. “Political reform in the Arab world, and indeed across the broader region, is a varied and internal process that requires sensitivity and recognition of the limits of what external actors can affect. But serious attention to liberalization measures in this region, particularly in the areas of human rights and rule of law, can serve US interests over the long term.”


Phil Leggiere
About the author:
Business Editor/Online Managing Editor, is a journalist and business analyst based in New England, who specializes in reporting on information technology and related industries.

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