Authoritarianism Breeds Extremism, Democracy Deters It

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US Attorney General John Ashcroft endorsed the conventional wisdom that prevailed at the time when he told the Senate that “…terrorists exploit our openness.” Mentioning a captured al-Qaeda training manual, he warned that “terrorists are told how to use America’s freedom as a weapon against us.”

Recent research, however, suggests that this conventional wisdom greatly underestimates the capacity of liberal democracy to resist terrorism. An article in the January 2018 issue of the Journal of Democracy by Amichai Magen, an Israeli political scientist at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, uses data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) to document that over the past decade, higher-quality liberal democracies have experienced fewer terrorist attacks than all other regime types, and that there have been fewer fatalities connected with these attacks.  Magen calls this finding the “democracy advantage.”

He gives two explanations to account for this phenomenon. The first is that political openness and the protection of civil liberties provide the conditions that allow grievances to be peacefully and publicly expressed and redressed, thereby cutting the political ground out from under the extremists. The second reason is that the responsiveness of democratic governments to the desire of citizens for physical safety generates higher rates of life-saving investments in intelligence, infrastructure protection, first responders, social resilience, and specialized medical care. This helps reduce the incidence of terrorist assaults and also makes them less deadly when they occur. Magen goes even further by noting that against the background of a surge in global terrorism over the past two decades, “a consolidated, high-quality democracy is increasingly proving to be the best counter-terrorism organization known to humanity.”

He cites the work of the economist Alberto Abadie who believes that the incidence of terrorism is explained more by the level of political freedom than poverty. In a 2006 essay in the American Economic Review, Abadie wrote that the relationship of regime type to terrorism takes the form of an inverted U because “countries with intermediate levels of political freedom [are] more prone to terrorism than countries with high levels of political freedom or countries with highly authoritarian regimes.” The reasoning is that intermediate regimes, such as electoral and minimalist democracies, are the most vulnerable because they lack what Magen calls “the grievance-assuaging and cooptation capacity” of liberal democracies” as well as “the brutal, no-holds barred crackdown abilities of hardened autocracies.”

But statistics that Magen cites from the GTD over the 2002-2016 period do not back up this thesis. They do show that higher quality democracies were less prone to terrorist attacks than all other regime types, and that intermediate regimes showed a far higher rate of increase in such attacks. Yet the greatest absolute rise in the number of terrorist attacks occurred in the more repressive regimes that the survey calls “multiparty autocracies” and “closed autocracies.” These multiparty dictatorships were more vulnerable, according to Magen, because they “provide greater political space within which terrorists and their ideological and financial supporters can organize and mobilize, yet lack the avenues for meaningful political access and expression that even bare-bones democracies have. Whatever opportunities for political contestation do exist in multiparty autocracies amount to a sham and are therefore ineffective in assuaging grievances and countering extremists’ claims to legitimacy.” 

Significantly, the GTD data also show that the greatest percentage increase in terrorist attacks during this fourteen-year period occurred in closed autocracies—the most illiberal and repressive category in the survey. Based on his research, Magen believes that there are two factors that account for this somewhat counter-intuitive finding. First, advanced communications technologies have made it easier for terrorists to generate and exploit strategic opportunities that exist in closed systems. And second, smartphones and social media have made it more difficult for autocratic regimes to hide terrorist incidents and have thus undermined the illusion inherited from an earlier era that dictatorships are less vulnerable to terrorism than are the developed democracies.

Egypt is an example of an authoritarian regime that is failing in its efforts to counter terrorism. An article last February in The Washington Post by two Egyptian-American human rights activists—one of them Aya Hijazi who became famous when President Trump intervened to secure her release from prison in Egypt—notes that

Sisi’s counterterrorism policies, which serve as an important justification of his dictatorship, have created a fertile ground for radicalization. The authors of this article witnessed this firsthand during the collective 60 months we spent in prison between 2013 and 2017. We watched the process of radicalization unfold as recruiters for the Islamic State, while jailed themselves, appealed to innocent young prisoners who were facing unjust detainment, harsh sentences, and inhumane conditions. Sisi’s heavy-handed crackdown has thus actually contributed to an increased Islamic State presence in Egypt. 

An Egyptian judge, Yussef Auf echoed these sentiments in an article published recently by the Atlantic Council, where the judge criticizes the harmful effect of the emergency law now in effect in Egypt. “All doors,” he writes, “are closed before any opposition and political activism. This is, indeed, a primary factor for the increasing rates of violence and extremism.”

It should then come as no surprise that a study by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy has found that during Sisi’s time in office, despite extensive military and police counter terrorism operations, terror groups have become more established and that attacks have continued regularly.

It is worth noting that Sisi’s authoritarian practices not only account for the increasing rates of domestic violence and extremism, they also greatly handicap the prospects for democratic change in Egypt’s future. Sisi’s security forces are not just trained and deployed to fight terrorism, they are also used to preserve the regime which obliges them to target nonviolent political opponents as much as or perhaps even more than militant groups. This means that civil society and dissenting political groups don’t have the space to operate, expand their influence, and develop politically, peacefully, and organizationally. Thus, if and when another political opening comes, as it did in 2011, the democrats committed to nonviolence won’t be organized or equipped to compete politically. As a result, there will be the same kind of destructive polarization that existed after the Tahrir Square uprising between the Islamists and the autocrats. 

Democracy doesn’t just blossom automatically when dictators fall.  If democrats and civil society activists are repressed, atomized, and helpless, they can’t effectively fill the political vacuum that is created when a dictatorship falls. That’s why it’s in the interest of fighting terrorism to pressure the Sisi regime to allow space for nonviolent groups to function and grow.

Tunisia offers a different and more hopeful example. In an accompanying article to the Magen piece in the Journal of Democracy, Geoffrey Macdonald and Luke Waggoner warn that while Tunisia has been a political success story, the failure to address corruption, unemployment, and inadequate social services dashed hopes for progress that were engendered by the Jasmine Revolution. According to Macdonald and Waggoner, the resulting disillusionment inflamed grievance-driven radicalism and led thousands of young Tunisians to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The authors concluded that if a democratic political transition is not accompanied by an economic and social transformation, it could actually heighten the threat of terrorism.

But Tunisia’s flawed beginnings are not the end of its journey because the democratic process and its capacity for self-correction is on-going there, giving its citizens both the opportunity and hope for a better future. The next phase of strengthening Tunisian democracy will take place on May 6 with the holding of municipal elections, which is an important milestone in Tunisia’s progress towards local governance and decentralization. These elections will give civil society and ordinary citizens unprecedented opportunities to participate and to make their voices heard. It’s especially encouraging that 52% of the candidates for local office are under the age of 35. This strong participation shows that young Tunisians are embracing democracy’s possibilities for reform and inclusion. Hopefully, this will counter the appeal of the extremists and make it possible for Tunisia to begin to reap the benefits of “the democracy advantage.”


Carl Gershman is the President of the National Endowment for Democracy. This article is based on remarks made on April 30, 2018, at a meeting of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies.

OG Image: