Is democracy a panacea to the use of violence by militants?


The administration of President George W Bush is articulating a vision for US policy based on the belief that the replacement of authoritarian regimes with democratic governments in the Middle East will eliminate the need for the violence used by some Islamic groups.

In the administration's view, the 11 September 2001 attacks were the products of the lack of channels for peaceful participation in Arab dictatorships, and ending authoritarianism in the region would therefore eliminate the root causes of violence used by militants.

However, an analysis of events and trends in the Middle East suggests that the holding of elections and other indicators of democracy are not instant solutions to threats from Islamic militants, and that the formation of some Islamic groups is not necessarily a reaction to authoritarianism. There are a number of instances in which progress toward democracy has not reduced the use of violence by some Islamic groups.

In Yemen, for example, there have been multiparty parliamentary elections since the 1994 civil war and President Ali Abdullah Salih has allowed other candidates - although generally weak - to run against him. These democratic stirrings in Yemen did not prevent Al-Qaeda from entering into Yemen in the late 1990s. The USS Cole was subjected to an Al-Qaeda suicide bombing while docked off Aden harbour in October 2000.

Another important example is that of Kuwait, which has held free parliamentary elections, although with a limited electorate and with some interruptions, since 1961. Despite Kuwait's progress, a number of Kuwaitis have been identified as Al-Qaeda activists.

There were several acts of Al-Qaeda violence against US soldiers and contractors in Kuwait, including the killing of two US marines on Faylakah Island, in the run-up to Operation 'Iraqi Freedom' in 2003. In 2005, there have been a number of suspected

Al-Qaeda attacks on Kuwaiti security forces.

Lebanon holds multiparty elections, despite Syrian domination and an enshrined formula for allocating the top government positions. Nonetheless, the pro-Iranian Shi'a movement, Hizbullah, maintains a powerful militia in Lebanon, deployed along the border with Israel, and defies any attempt to disarm it. Hizbullah's militancy, although waning somewhat, has existed within the environment of Lebanese elections and 'democracy'. In fact, it has even participated in those elections and Hizbullah and its allies hold 12 seats in Lebanon's 128-seat parliament.

The Islamic republic of Iran serves as another example. Iran has held multigrouping, multicandidate parliamentary and presidential elections since the founding of the Islamic regime in 1979. At the same time, Iran has been consistently identified by the Bush administration as an 'active state sponsor of terrorism'. Vibrant elections did not stop Iran from aiding and abetting Hizbullah's use of violence during 1983-94, and Iran continues to assist the Palestinian Islamic groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which continue to commit acts of violence against Israelis.

Nor has the use of violence by some Islamic groups necessarily been a reaction to authoritarianism. The Egyptian factions within Al-Qaeda - the El-Gihad and El-Gamaa el-Islamiyya organisations - were outgrowths of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928. These groups were driven underground by the repression of Gamal abd al-Nasser and crackdowns by his successor Anwar Sadat.

However, El-Gihad militants did not assassinate Sadat in October 1981 because Sadat was authoritarian, or because Egypt lacked 'democracy' - he was assassinated primarily because he signed a peace treaty with Israel and because he was a secular leader (although personally an observant Muslim). The opposition to President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak by some Islamic groups has been motivated primarily by his secular and pro-Western orientation, and not because he has refused to democratise. Elections and democracy are not likely to appease the drive by these organisations for an Islamic state aligned against the West.

Another case study is the emergence of Osama bin Laden himself. Bin Laden was a fervent Islamist in the 1980s, but his energy was directed against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and not against the US or the Saudi royal family. However, in 1991, he became an opponent of the Saudi royal family because it was hosting US forces in Saudi Arabia to contain Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War. And, in fact, just at the same time Bin Laden was emerging as an opposition figure in internal Saudi politics, King Fahd (1992-93) was announcing his 'basic laws' and establishing the national Consultative Council to broaden participation in governance. Bin Laden opposes the Saudi royal family because it is aligned with the US and the West on major security matters - his opposition has little to do with the Saudi refusal to democratise.

The establishment of democracy in Arab societies is low on the agenda of some Islamic groups. These organisations are fighting what they perceive as undue Western influence, secularism, and what they assess as Western indifference to the plight of the Palestinians and other Muslims. Rapid adoption of electoral processes and democracy is unlikely, in and of itself, to eliminate the militancy of some Islamic groups.

It is certainly possible that the US emphasis on democracy could cost the US some valuable regional allies who have been stalwart supporters on almost all security issues of interest to the US.

If the holding of elections and the establishment of democracy is not a 'magic bullet' against the militancy of some Islamic groups, then other, alternative, strategies need to be considered. Some of these alternatives might better fit the characteristics of some groups, or the political environment or cause that is motivating that group. Hizbullah is again instructive. Hizbullah was without question the most active of these groups during the 1980s. Few dispute that it has largely ceased conducting acts of violence, although there are reports that it provides advice and training for Palestinian groups such as Hamas to conduct militant acts against Israel. Hizbullah's diminished violent activity - and its new focus on expanding its role in Lebanese politics - appears to be a direct result of Israel's May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon. While Hizbullah hailed the withdrawal as a victory for its steadfast 'resistance' activities, the withdrawal had the effect of undercutting Hizbullah's insistence that it needs to maintain a military arm. Hizbullah now lacks a clear grievance that would justify militant activity against Israel or the US.

Another Islamic group has been largely defeated by a different approach - military action. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was an Al-Qaeda affiliate opposed to the government of Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, largely neutralised as a result of the Afghan war. The IMU has been far less active and effective since the presumed death in November 2001 of its military leader, Juma Namangani. It is believed he was killed by a US air strike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, during the US-led war. Another IMU leader, Tohir Yuldash, survived the war, but lacks the guerrilla command skills of Namangani, and the IMU has since withered through a lack of leadership and a denial of territory.

The two Egyptian groups discussed above - El-Gamaa el-Islamiyya and El-Gihad - have been almost completely defeated by a major counter effort by Egyptian security forces since November 1997. The groups have been suppressed to the point where they have agreed to a truce with the Egyptian government. Similarly, Al-Qaeda factions inside Saudi Arabia have been placed on the defensive. Al-Qaeda cells in the Kingdom have carried out some high-profile attacks, most notably the May 2003 attack on Western housing compounds in Riyadh and a December 2004 attack on the US consulate in Jeddah.

However, Al-Qaeda attacks inside Saudi Arabia have become highly sporadic since April 2004 as the Saudi security forces have stepped up a campaign to arrest militants. The population has largely rallied to the royal family, viewing the militants as offering no viable or desirable alternative to the current regime. The success against militants is a result of a forceful crackdown, and not due to the development of anything approximating Western-style democracy in the Kingdom - the current municipal elections notwithstanding.

Other defeated Islamic groups that deserve study here are the Taliban and the faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan - Hizb-i-Islami. Since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in December 2001, Taliban remnants and Hizb-i-Islami fighters (along with some Al-Qaeda militants) have conducted an insurgency against the US-backed government of Hamed Karzai. That insurgency has now diminished significantly. The insurgents have virtually no popular support because Afghanistan has been able to establish a legitimate, broad-based government. The October 2004 presidential elections attracted broad and enthusiastic participation. Many Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami fighters are reported to be negotiating with the government to peacefully rejoin Afghan politics. In this case, the move toward pluralism and democracy has proved to be an effective solution to blunt the threat of violence from these groups.

The case studies discussed above demonstrate that there are a number of strategies that might work in combating the violence used by some Islamic groups. Smaller groups, such as the IMU, seem vulnerable to military action. Larger ones, such as Hizbullah, are difficult to defeat militarily but they can be blunted when the underlying cause for which they are fighting is removed. Some Islamic groups are vulnerable to suppression when they try to achieve power politically in their countries of origin. Populations generally do not view violent Islamic movements as legitimate alternatives to existing regimes, no matter how authoritarian, secular, or pro-Western those regimes might be. In some cases, as exemplified by Afghanistan, progress toward pluralism and democracy is an effective means of defeating violent movements.

Kenneth Katzman, PhD, is a senior analyst working on Middle East issues at the Congressional Research Service in Washington,




Explore our related content