Political Reform in the Arab World is a Mixed Bag in Confronting Terrorism

For Release

September 24, 2008

Stepping into the debate over whether democracy stops terrorism, a RAND Corporation study issued today finds that democratic political reforms can marginalize extremists and undermine support for political violence, but cosmetic reforms and backtracking on democratization can exacerbate the risk of terrorism.

The belief that promoting democracy reduces terrorism has played a significant role in recent U.S. foreign policy. Yet little evidence has shown that democracy has either a positive or negative effect on terrorism. The RAND report breaks new ground by assessing reform efforts — and their implications for terrorism — in six key Arab states.

"American policymakers obviously need to be concerned about maintaining allies in the region, but the concern over stability does not have to come at the expense of political reforms," said Dalia Dassa Kaye, the report's lead author and a political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

"In fact, when Arab states backtrack on reform or institute repressive measures, stability also suffers. U.S. policy needs to make it clear to our allies that democratization isn't about regime change or even merely elections; it's also about providing political rights and expanded civil liberties over time."

The RAND study looked at the effects of liberalization processes on domestic political violence in Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco from 1991 to 2006, incorporating extensive fieldwork in each of the six countries and wide-ranging reviews of secondary literature and primary source materials, including Arabic sources.

Employing a broad definition of democratization, Kaye and her colleagues found that political reforms had little effect on promoting norms of tolerance or inclusive political institutions, as democracy advocates might expect. Instead, they often exacerbate existing societal cleavages, because those in power tend to "stack the deck" when implementing reforms to maintain their power.

However, the study also found that even limited reforms can have some beneficial effects. In some cases, allowing opposition movements to participate in the political process has marginalized radical elements and prevented more violent tactics. By contrast, limited cosmetic reforms, or those put into place and then withdrawn, can be destabilizing. This can erode the legitimacy of the system, undermining more moderate factions among political opposition groups, as well as public support for counter-terrorism efforts.

Although some believe that democracy is dangerous to U.S. interests in the Middle East, Kaye and her colleagues recommend the United States pursue "realistic democracy promotion" rather than a "return to realism." Recommended policy measures include:

  • Apply sustained pressure to strengthen democratic institutions and practices, scrutinize reforms carefully, and limit applause.
  • Emphasize human rights, transparency, and judicial reform and the rule of law.
  • Avoid taking sides in elections.
  • Safeguard security while respecting the rule of law.
  • Engage Islamic parties while leveling the playing field for other types of political opposition.
  • Recognize political motivations behind pro- and anti-democratization stances.

Other authors of the study are Frederic Wehrey, Audra K. Grant and Dale Stahl of RAND. The study was sponsored by RAND's continuing program of self-initiated independent research. Support for this research is provided by donors and by the independent research and development provisions of RAND's contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers.

The study, "More Freedom, Less Terror? Liberalization and Political Violence in the Arab World," is available at www.rand.org.

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