More Freedom, Less Terror? Liberalization and Political Violence in the Arab World

  • Published

More Freedom, Less Terror? Liberalization and Political Violence in the Arab World by Dalia Dassa Kaye, Frederic Wehrey, Audra K. Grant, and Dale Stahl. RAND Corporation, 2008, 226 pp.

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, the Arab world has occupied the forefront of the United States’ national security agenda. Much of the literature concerning terrorism deals with the effect of democracy on that phenomenon. Some analysts conclude that the presence of thriving democracies in the Middle East would offer outlets for political grievances and therefore reduce the inclination to resort to violence. Others suggest that the United States must maintain relationships with autocratic leaders better able to prevent terrorists from achieving their goals. This theory results from the liberalization in the Middle East that led to the rise of Islamist groups. The literature on this topic contains a myriad of policy implications for the United States. In More Freedom, Less Terror?, Dalia Kaye and her coauthors, all of whom are RAND analysts, explore how liberalization has had an effect on resorting to political violence.

Specifically, they seek to determine the effects of liberalization processes on political violence—immediate and delayed—in this critical area of the world by applying both qualitative and quantitative analyses to six case studies involving Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco. They explore a number of similarities (regional context, bouts with terror, major regional actors, etc.) and differences (civil war, limited stability, autocrats, monarchies, etc.), using data compiled by the RAND National Security Research Division, interviews with 130 regional experts, secondary literature, Arab sources, and information available from the nongovernmental organization Freedom House. Each case merits its own chapter, which includes a brief historical context regarding terror as well as liberalization.

The study’s hypotheses—which deal with norms, institutions, legitimacy, and destabilization, based upon the current literature—test whether democracy (1) fosters positive attitudes and values that will steer people away from extremism and political violence, (2) addresses grievances, (3) enhances the legitimacy of the state and reduces support for terrorism, or (4) leads to more terrorism. In all of the cases, the researchers find that neither quantitative nor qualitative analysis provides enough information, although the latter seems somewhat more fruitful. They do find support for at least one of their hypotheses in each case: legitimacy (Egypt); mixed results for the effect of both institutions and legitimacy (Jordan); positive results for legitimacy, moderate results for institutional logic, and mixed results for norms of tolerance (Bahrain); positive results for legitimacy (Saudi Arabia); a trend toward destabilization (Algeria); and positive results for institutionalization, normative effects, and legitimacy (Morocco). Evidence derived from interviews and surveys, as displayed in graphs, supports their hypotheses.

In the “Summary” portion of the monograph, the coauthors introduce the reader to their policy recommendations, which they explore further in the conclusion. They suggest the following: (1) “apply sustained pressure, scrutinize, and limit applause”; (2) “emphasize judicial reform and rule of law, human rights, and transparency”; (3) “avoid taking sides”; (4) “safeguard security while respecting the rule of law”; (5) “engage Islamist parties while leveling the playing field for other types of political opposition”; and (6) “recognize political motivations behind pro- and anti-democratization stances” (pp. xxiv–xxvi). In each case, their findings indicate that liberalization has a beneficial effect on political violence at some level. Additionally, their recommendations have a strong basis in logic.

The authors would have done well to suggest how the United States should apply their recommendations, especially the one involving Islamists, preferably offering advice about avoiding conflict with openly hostile Islamist regimes. Furthermore, it would have been interesting to include a case study from Southeast Asia—another region where religious extremism has resulted in political violence—and to address the topic of domestic terrorism abroad. Lastly, the inclusion of more demographics and even a map would have provided a geographical framework, thereby helping the reader understand the dynamics of the particular country.

Overall, More Freedom, Less Terror? has much to contribute to the literature because it offers a new approach, recommending that the United States continue to promote democracy but with restrictions. Policy makers—or, for that matter, anyone interested in the region—should find it useful.

Kandyce Carter-Flaherty

University of Cincinnati

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."