Presented by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Project on Middle East Democracy 

Do transitions to democracy dampen violent, extremist forces or ignite them? POMED and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a panel discussion on the relationship between democratization and conflict, asking whether democratization is likely to be a force for stability or unrest in the Middle East. In his opening remarks, Andrew Albertson, Executive Director of POMED and the panel’s moderator, observed that U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East since September 2001 have been motivated in part by the belief that political reform would mitigate public discontent in the region, undercutting terrorists and militant extremists. But some scholars argue that transitions to democracy are rocky and likely to engender conflict, bolstering sectarian and nationalist elements of society. Noting that these issues have emerged in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, Albertson asked: What lessons have we learned?

Panelists included Thomas Carothers, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Audra Grant, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, Karin von Hippel, Co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Amjad Atallah, Co-director of the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force.

Carothers began by drawing a distinction between two questions that are often conflated in discussions of democracy and conflict. The first question is whether societies transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy can manage their internal divisions. The second is whether democratization tends to breed extremist movements. On the first question, Middle Eastern countries are far less likely to break apart into multiple republics based around different ethnic groups than for example Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. The Middle East does contain some sharply divided societies, in which democracy could upset a delicate balance of power, but Carothers was sanguine, arguing that while Iraq’s ethnic and religious tensions have raised concerns about democratization, this is an anomalous case, since democracy was imposed from the outside.

So the Arab world is not a particularly inauspicious region for democracy, particularly if the following steps occur: a strong national identity exists before the transition; the reform process is negotiated; the electoral system is not winner-take-all; and the economy is expanding. As to whether democratization in the Middle East will lead to extremists taking over – Carothers notes that globally, few of the democracies emerging over the last 25 years have elected ideologically extreme leaders, and militant groups tend to be more moderate once in power. But Carothers cautioned that democracies do not necessarily undercut support for extremist groups where they already exist.

Grant discussed a RAND study that used quantitative and qualitative methods to examine the link between political liberalization (defined broadly to include improvements in human rights) and incidents of terrorist violence in the Middle East. The study generally found mixed results on the connection between liberalization and terrorism. In Bahrain, for example, some Islamists have joined parliament, while others have formed militant groups. Substantive reforms have at times been followed by a moderation of citizens’ political attitudes, and genuine attempts to address grievances seem to be the most effective way to reduce extremism. In other cases like Morocco and Jordan, attempts at political reform were perceived as disingenuous, having no effect on terrorism. Institutional reform moderated some extremist groups, but at times, reforms exclude Islamists, radicalizing them further.

Grant then made some policy recommendations. The U.S. should focus on promoting rule of law, human rights, transparency, accountability, and the inclusion of diverse political actors – not just elections – in order to give reforming regimes legitimacy. We must also avoid taking sides, lest we undermine local reformers, and we must engage the most significant political players, including Islamists. Despite the benefits of democratization, we not view democracy as a panacea for terrorism.

Hippel focused on how the U.S. can better manage democratic nation-building to contain conflict. The U.S. has had a dismal rate of success at nation building in the last seven years, she argued, and has failed to carry over lessons from one situation to the next. We must align our principles and policies by ensuring security objectives don’t overshadow political reform. For instance, in Pakistan, our aid has been mainly military (and most of it unrelated even to counterterrorism), while officials rhetorically limited U.S. aspirations for democracy in Afghanistan. The US also needs to do a better job of integrating state-building efforts within governments, between governments, and between governments and non-state organizations. In closing, Hippel pointed out that the popularity of many militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas is due largely to their provision of social services, and in many cases, no government is competing with them in this arena.

Atallah discussed the events around the 2006 Palestinian elections in which Hamas came to power, which reflected the mistakes in Bush’s broader Middle East policies. Atallah described Hamas as an agile, pragmatic party that has shifted its views on a number of occasions. To compete with Islamic Jihad during the Intifada, Hamas adopted an ultranationalist position. It also provided social services, but its popularity still depended on its capacity for military force. It also had to counter Fatah’s narrative that peace would lead to a Palestinian state, and turned to terrorism to derail the peace process and establish a political niche. But Hamas later recognized this approach wasn’t working, abandoned suicide bombing, and began to position themselves as a proper political party. By 2006, Palestinians voted for Hamas, and after victory, they signaled an intention to govern moderately, placing op-eds in U.S. newspapers and publicly praising Turkey’s secular model.

But within weeks, the administration called for Hamas’ ouster and boycotted the new Palestinian government. The U.S. declared any Fatah or third party politicians who joined the government to be terrorists, supported Israel’s arrest of 38 Palestinian parliamentarians, and did not support the 2007 unity agreement in Mecca. Atallah argues that the U.S. could have distanced itself from Hamas without undermining the Palestinian government, which contributed to our credibility gap on democracy.

In response to a question from Albertson, Atallah noted that new Palestinian elections are scheduled for 2010, and unless the U.S. makes clear that it is committed to a Palestinian state and ends support for Israeli settlement expansion, Hamas’ popularity is bound to continue to increase. During the question and answer session, Atallah and Hippel noted that U.S. officials often can’t talk to Islamists or fund many organizations with links to Islamists, which prevents us from learning how they provide social services effectively or from co-opting those organizations providing such services.