All Writings
June 11, 2005

Be Careful Of What You Wish For

However admirable the Bush administration's efforts to spread democracy, especially in the Middle East, these efforts appear hollow and hypocritical as long as the White House refuses to accept the outcome of free elections when they don't turn out to its liking. It is high time for the Bush administration to adjust to the emerging political reality, which it has helped foster, and engage rather than shun the new political forces in the region and thereby moderate their positions. Hizbullah's significant gains in the recent elections in Lebanon most likely will be followed by similar ones by Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Indeed, Islamic groups are poised to forge ahead in every free and fair election in the Middle East and thus consolidate their position to influence, if not control, their countries' political agendas. Under repressive Arab regimes, including those of Egypt, Algeria, Palestine, Lebanon, and the Gulf states, the Islamists have focused on organizing themselves politically and channeling their financial and human resources to galvanize public support. Given the opportunity, groups like Hamas and Hizbullah could easily capitalize on the public sentiments that they have nurtured over a long period. The results of their efforts were and are predictable and should be clear to the Bush administration, especially in countries like Lebanon, where religious affiliation provides the basis for the platforms of the political parties. In a conversation I had a couple of days ago with Fouad Makhloumi, the leader of the National Dialogue Party in Lebanon, he expressed deep bitterness over the American approach. "America,"he said, "is interested in the perception of democracy, not in true democracy itself . . . elections do not in of themselves produce a true democracy." He added, "Syria is out of Lebanon, but the Syrian influence continues to permeate every social, economic, and political sector of the country." Knowing the sectarian conflict in the Lebanese society and how well Hizbullah is organized, the administration can not be surprised when, in coordination with other Shiite groups like Amal, Hizbullah emerges as a major political force. Similarly, there is no doubt, that if the playing field is fair, Hamas will also be in a position to muster a substantial block in the Palestinian National Council, once elections are held.

The Bush administration must now decide whether it will respect the people's choice or continue to preach a gospel of democracy and freedom that will only ring hollow if the results of such elections do not suit America's interests and in one way or another it does not accept the outcome. How else can the United States moderate the position of these Islamists unless it engages them in a political discourse? These groups are fully aware of the changing times. They too read the public sentiment and act accordingly. It is not by accident that Hamas agreed to join the political process. Its leaders did so not so much because they were threatened by the Palestinian Authority or abandoned their desire to destroy Israel, but because they understood that a growing majority of Palestinians want an end to the violence and bloodshed. And because deep down, they recognize that the continuation of an armed struggle against Israel is self-destructive because Israel will prevail. Whether the move by Hamas was strategic or tactical, the Bush administration must build on any signs of moderation like this so that Hamas does not remain a pariah resorting to militancy; in fact, becoming more moderate is the only means by which Hamas can sustain and strengthen its popularity. As Hamas's leader in the West Bank, Sheik Hassan Yousef, recently intimated to me, "We will go along with the Palestinian Authority and join the political process as long as our grievances are addressed." Mahmoud Abbas is correct in trying to lure Hamas into the political process. Although he can jail or eliminate many of its leaders, he cannot destroy a whole movement representing entire communities. Yes, members of Hamas must eventually lay down their arms, and yes, they must forsake their stated goal of destroying Israel. But then again, no militant movement that was gaining in popular support and political ground ever abandoned its arms voluntarily, even after being fully integrated into the political process. We do not have to look much further than to the IRA which still refuses to completely decommission their weaponry seven years after the Good Friday Accord was reached.

The Algerian experience offers a constructive example: Thirteen years after the Algerian army invalidated the first democratic elections in 1992 because the Islamic party (the Islamic Salvation Front) won by an overwhelming majority, intellectuals throughout the Arab and Muslim world still remind their people how the western powers, especially the United States, precipitated and supported the army's move. In response, Islamist extremists resorted to insurgency and sabotage, leading to the death of more than 100,000 Algerians. Successive American administrations, ignored the lesson of Algeria and so, by courting various repressive authoritarian regimes (the autocrats, theocrats, and royalists), they pushed Islamic extremists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, in many Arab countries, and Gama'at el-Islamia, in Egypt. to organize politically and remain poised to jump at the first political opportunity. Hamas and Hizbullah have generated public support because of their resistence to the Israeli occupation and their ability to offer social services to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese, services their respective governments failed to provide. But once they become a part of or the governing authority, these groups will also assume responsibilities that transcend those toward their immediate constituency. This reality in and of itself fosters moderation.

In fact, the Bush administration, if it truly wishes for democratic progress in the Middle East, should actively support rather than hinder this kind of political transformation. Otherwise, the senseless bloodshed will undoubtedly continue and the administration's drive to democratize the Middle East will inevitably fail.