Category Archives: Democracy

Hamas: The Perils of Power

Hamas: The Perils of Power

Volume 53, Number 4 – March 9, 2006
New York Review of Books

By Hussein Agha, Robert Malley

In the days following the Palestinian elections on January 25, in which Hamas won seventy-four out of 132 seats in the Palestine Legislative Council, Hamas officials expressed hope that they could join with Fatah in forming a government. They spoke of national unity and referred respectfully to the authority of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. In statements aimed at the West, they claimed they had never truly advocated Israel’s destruction, and they made it clear they were willing to deal pragmatically with both the Jewish state and the agreements the Palestinian Authority had made with it. They apparently dropped, at least from their immediate goals, their demand for an Islamic Palestinian state; and they said nothing about resuming armed attacks. An outsider could be forgiven for failing to realize that Hamas had done quite well in the voting, let alone that it had won, let alone by a landslide.

Out-and-out victory was not what Hamas had expected or, for that matter, what it had wished for. It had come to see itself as a watchdog on the sidelines, sitting in the legislature without controlling it, shaping the government’s policies without being held accountable for them, taking credit for its successes and escaping blame for any setbacks. Its triumph presents it with challenges of a different, more urgent, and less familiar sort. Hamas suddenly finds itself on the front line, with decisions to make and relations to manage with the world, international donors, Israel, Fatah, and, indeed, its own varied constituents. The Islamists may have secretly expected to sweep the elections but, if so, that secret remains well kept. Referring to Iraq, President Bush once spoke of America’s catastrophic success. Judging from the Islamists’ initial, startled reactions to their triumph, this may well be theirs.

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Bearded Arabs 1; American ladies 0

Bearded Arabs 1; American ladies 0

The Daily Star
Saturday, February 25, 2006

By Rami G. Khouri

Nothing better captures the broad lines of the great contestation that now defines the Middle East than the four very telegenic characters who have crisscrossed the region during the past week: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, her colleague in charge of U.S. public policy, Karen Hughes, Hamas official Khaled Meshaal and the young Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Their travels have been closely followed by the news media, which instinctively recognize a gladiatorial battle for the future when they see it, as is the case here.

Two of these four Middle Eastern itinerant ideologues are slick, appointed American political figures who spend many of their waking hours preaching the benefits of democratic elections in the Arab world. Two others are bearded Arab Islamists who have come to power through the American-supported vehicle of democratic elections in the Arab world. It would seem to be a match made in heaven: bearded Arab politicos who wish to expand their own efficient constituencies and militias into governing systems that enhance the wellbeing of their fellow citizens; and the American ladies who combine the bouncy enthusiasm of young high school cheerleaders with the more daring inclination to engage in political genetic engineering in order to enhance the wellbeing of Arab citizens and the security of Americans, in one fell swoop.

This convergence and happy ideological marriage has not happened. Instead, Rice and Hughes, when they are not preaching democracy for Arabs, spend the few remaining hours of their days fighting the incumbency of democratically elected Arabs. In response, elected bearded Arab politicos like Meshaal, the head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, and Sadr, who leads a powerful Shiite movement and militia in Iraq, increase their legitimacy and their impact through two parallel routes. They engage in electoral politics by being more responsive and accountable to the needs of their constituents, and they generate wider emotional and political appeal by defying Washington and its policies and presence in the Middle East.

The likelihood is that this past week will go down in the record books as one in which the American ladies significantly lost ground to the bearded Arabs. This is due to the simple reason that both the style and substance of American policies run sharply counter to the sentiments of ordinary Arabs, while the Meshaal-Sadr school of politics caters directly to ordinary people’s powerful emotional and political needs.

Rice’s trip to four Arab capitals embodies the explicit American diplomatic drive to convince Arab governments to quarantine Hamas and starve the Palestinians of aid funds, until Hamas changes its views and actions vis-a-vis Israel. This policy will be rejected by all Arab governments, and is also likely to set back Washington’s standing in the region more than any other action in recent years, even the unpopular Iraq war. That is because opposition to Hamas touches on and sharply inflames several deep nerves that already form the foundation of widespread skepticism about American foreign policy in the Arab world and internationally.

The first is the sense that the United States is neither serious nor consistent about promoting democracy. The second is that it fights mightily against Arabs or others in the region who try to manifest their identity through expressions of Islamism. The third is that Washington wages vigorous battles against any Arabs, Muslims, or others in the world who dare to resist Israel’s occupation and subjugation of Arabs, in Palestine and elsewhere. The fourth is that Washington treats sovereign Arab governments with contempt, expecting them to ignore their own public opinion and bend to America’s desires at the snap of a finger.

Not surprisingly, the trend of public opinion and political sentiments on the ground throughout the Middle East has been in favor of mainstream Islamists who simultaneously accept democratic pluralism, defy the U.S., resist Israeli occupation and colonization, and demand less corruption and more efficient governance at home. So Hamas, Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood and movements like Sadr’s are winning elections, even when America-friendly governments such as Egypt’s restrict their freedom of movement.

Meshaal’s and Sadr’s travels around the Middle East this week were more like a victory lap than anything else. We must challenge some of their past behavior and future plans, to be sure. But we must also admit that these Islamist leaders have more legitimacy in the Middle East than all of Rice’s and Hughes’ copious democratic rhetoric, and all the Marines in Mesopotamia put together.

What to do instead? Elected democratic incumbents in Washington, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere should engage honestly, to move toward a common middle ground where Arab, Iranian, Turkish, European and American policies could happily coexist. This desirable terrain would include indigenous religious and social values, universal good governance standards, global principles that assert national sovereignty and reject colonial occupation, and legitimate leaders who have both the political credibility and the managerial capacity to synchronize all these factors into sensible, sustainable policies. High-profile American officials should explore this more humane, mutually beneficial approach during their visits to our convoluted lands, rather than mainly lecture and offend us.

This week’s score: bearded Arabs 1, American ladies 0.

Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for The Daily Star.

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In the Mideast, the Third Way Is a Myth

In the Mideast, the Third Way Is a Myth

By Shibley Telhami

Friday, February 17, 2006; Page A19
The Washington Post

The reality shown by Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections is this: If fully free elections were held today in the rest of the Arab world, Islamist parties would win in most states. Even with intensive international efforts to support “civil society” and nongovernmental organizations, elections in five years would probably yield the same results. The notion, popular in Washington over the past few years, that American programs and efforts can help build a third alternative to both current governments and Islamists is simply a delusion.

In Arab politics there are primarily two organized power groups: Islamic organizations, drawing their support from a disenfranchised public mobilized by the mosque, and governing elites. Sure, there are many other organizations, sometimes even ones whose aspirations match those of large segments of the public, but their chances will remain small. This we have ascribed to bad governments always forcing the choice between themselves on the one hand and the Islamists on the other.

But this is usually the outcome of normal politics, even in mature democracies. Most people around the world would be hard-pressed to see the U.S. political system as a multiparty one. Even in many parliamentary multiparty systems, politics evolves into competition between two dominant parties, making it extremely difficult for a third way to emerge. It is a remarkable leap of faith to expect that we can engineer a different outcome in the Middle East.

It isn’t that democracy is not possible in the Arab world. In fact, the remarkable thing about the Palestinian elections was that they were free and highly contested under difficult circumstances. Over 20 percent of the candidates, including those of Hamas, were female. The ruling elites accepted defeat and stepped aside. In the limited parliamentary success in Egypt, government candidates lost in a majority of the districts contested by the candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood — and the results stood.

But in this historic moment Islamists remain the most well-organized alternative to governments, a situation that is unlikely to change soon. And current governments are not popular: A survey I conducted in October with Zogby International (in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates) asked Arabs which world leaders they admired most (outside their own countries). The only leader who received double-digit support was French President Jacques Chirac (for his perceived defiance of the United States on Iraq). No sitting Arab ruler received more than 2 percent. A plurality of Arabs believe that the clergy plays “too little” a role in Arab politics. There is a vacuum of leadership that will inevitably cost governments in truly free elections.

This leaves U.S. foreign policy with limited choices. Full electoral democracy in the Middle East will inevitably lead to domination by Islamist groups, leaving the United States to either continue a confrontational approach, with high and dangerous costs for both sides, or to find a way to engage them — something that has yet to be fully considered. Given this, skepticism about the real aims of these groups should be balanced by openness to the possibility that their aims once they are in power could differ from their aims as opposition groups. This requires partial engagement, patience, and a willingness to allow such new governments space and time to put their goals to the test of reality. Hamas, in fact, could provide a place for testing whether careful engagement leads to moderation.

If we are not willing to engage, there is only one alternative: to rethink the policy of accelerated electoral democracy and focus on a more incremental approach of institutional and economic reform of existing governments. There is no realistic third party that’s likely to emerge anytime soon.

Whatever the message of American foreign policy on democracy, it has not been clear in the Middle East. Most Arab governments see the American advocacy of democracy as primarily aimed at pressuring them to cooperate on strategic issues (such as Iraq, the war on terrorism and the Palestinian-Israeli issue) and at diverting attention from the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The majority of Arabs surveyed in our poll do not believe that the United States is serious about the pursuit of democracy and that the Middle East is even less democratic than it was before the Iraq war.

The focus on democracy, and the United States as a key agent in driving it, has been a distraction from other central challenges. The single most significant demographic variable correlated with anti-Americanism in the Arab world is income. In Gaza, where unemployment is nearly 50 percent, per capita income is half of what it was in the late 1990s. Income is related to the quality of education. In Egypt, home to one-quarter of Arabs, Cairo University, the leading Arab university, is now rated 28th — in Africa. Human rights violations remain widespread in the region, where our own troubling behavior toward prisoners has significantly hampered our ability to lecture others. Concerted efforts in those areas of economic, educational and judicial development, coupled with a strong human rights policy, have a far greater chance to make a difference.

Despite all its troubles, the United States remains the most powerful country, still powerful enough to reshuffle the deck in the Middle East. But it will never be powerful enough to determine where the cards fall.

The writer is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and a non-resident senior fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution.

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The Rise of Political Islam: The Palestinian Election and Democracy in the Middle East

The Rise of Political Islam
The Palestinian Election and Democracy in the Middle East

A longer version of this piece appears at

Dilip Hiro
January 25 , 2006

By now, the voting will have begun in today’s Palestinian elections. It’s not clear how well Hamas — the Arabic acronym which stands for Movement of Islamic Resistance — will do, but opinion polls in the Palestinian territories show the Islamic organization pulling neck and neck with the ruling Fatah party. This is so even though Fatah strategists have plastered the territories with posters of Marwan Barghouti, the popular younger leader who is serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli jail.

This is but the latest manifestation of the rise of political Islam in the electoral politics of the Middle East, a development that — despite the Bush administration’s endless promotion of democratic reform in the region — is causing deep worry among top policy makers in Washington.

Last year began with Islamist candidates winning most of the seats in the first very limited municipal polls in Saudi Arabia and ended with the Iraqi religious parties — both Shiite and Sunni — performing handsomely in the December parliamentary elections. The official Iraqi results, announced on January 21, showed the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance winning almost 80% of the seats that should go to the majority Shiite community. Likewise the Islamic Iraq Party won 80% of the places to which the Sunni minority is entitled.

In between these polls, in a general election held last summer, Hizbollah emerged as the preeminent representative of Lebanese Shiites, the country’s largest sectarian group (which is grossly underrepresented in parliament). And in the first election for the legislative assembly not flagrantly rigged by Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood registered a nearly 60% success rate by winning 88 out of the 150 seats it contested. The Brotherhood certainly could have won many more, but its leadership deliberately decided to contest only a minority of seats in order not to provoke the regime of Egypt’s pro-American president and so create a situation in which he might be likely to strike out indiscriminately against the opposition.

Put all of this together and you have what looks like a single phenomenon sweeping the region. However, focus on these developments one by one and what you see is that the reasons for Islamist advances are not only different in each case but particular to each country.

Take Iraq. History shows that when an ethnic, racial, or social group is persecuted or overly oppressed, it tends to turn to religion to find solace. In the Americas, this was true, for instance, of the Africans brought in as slaves. It is not accidental that today African-Americans are still more religious than white Americans.

Once Iraq became part of the (Sunni) Ottoman Empire in 1638, Shiites were persecuted and discriminated against. Even after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, as King Faisal was installed by the British as Iraq’s ruler, little changed. He was Sunni, as were the leaders of the Baath Party that followed him to power. Mosque and religion became the last resort of Iraqi Shiites. Once the Baath Party was pulverized in the wake of the Bush administration’s invasion, the Shiite religious network emerged as the most cohesive and efficient organization in the country — and remains so today. In the late 1970s, following the fall of the secular regime of the Shah, Iran witnessed a similar phenomenon. As for the Sunnis, that long dominant minority, twelve years of UN economic sanctions hurt them as badly as non-Sunni Iraqis. Increased misery and growing impoverishment led the Sunni masses, too, to turn to Islam for consolation and support. So it is not surprising that once Sunnis decided to participate in the electoral process, most of them favored the Iraqi Islamic Party.

There is no evidence to suggest that, under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis were overwhelmingly secular to begin with. There were then no public opinion polls to discover the actual views of the Iraqi people. The Arab Baath Socialist Party was itself secular in the sense that one of its three founders, Michel Aflaq, the ideological guru of Saddam, was a Christian who moved from Beirut to Baghdad and died there in 1989.

Far more reliable, when it comes to the state of public opinion, is the confidential poll conducted in late July 2004 for the International Republican Institute, an offshoot of the U.S. Republican Party, and leaked to the press that September: Seven out of ten respondents said that the Sharia, or Islamic law, should be the “sole basis” of Iraqi laws, and the same proportion — 70% — preferred to live in a “religious state”; only 23% opted for a secular one. The two elections since then have only underlined the accuracy of this poll.

Egypt is the country where the Muslim Brotherhood was first established in 1928. By inflicting a swift and humiliating defeat on an Egypt ruled by President Gamal Abdul Nasser, a man wedded to “Arab socialism,” in June 1967, Israel delivered a near-fatal blow to the hopes for the development of secular Arab nationalism in the region. In that hour of their downfall most Egyptians attributed the Israeli victory to Jewish devotion to their religion and, in a similar spirit, turned to Islam for their own spiritual succor. It was at that point that the Muslim Brotherhood, though still an outlawed organization, began gaining popularity.

With Anwar Sadat (known to have been sympathetic to the Brotherhood earlier in his life) succeeding Nasser as president in 1970, pressure on the Brotherhood eased for a while. In more recent years, the failure of Hosni Mubarak’s rule to narrow the gap between a tiny, wealthy elite and the country’s impoverished masses has provided the Brotherhood with an ever richer soil in which to plant its utopian and increasingly appealing slogan, “Islam is the solution.”

Today, it is fair to say that the failure of both Arab socialism and American-style capitalism to deliver the goods to the bulk of the population, leaves a probable majority of Egyptians ready to try the Third Way of Islam.

The Palestinian case is altogether different. Israel’s 38-year-long military occupation, with its devastating impact on the everyday lives of the occupied, has spawned a politics that has no parallel elsewhere in the Arab world. Its salient features include: powerful tensions between local and long-exiled leaders; high political consciousness; a lack of distance between followers and leaders of a sort not found in long established states and regimes; and a turning to religion for solace.

The ruling Fatah movement suffers from tensions between local leaders and those who spent many years abroad before returning after the 1993 Oslo Accords. The leadership of Hamas, on the other hand, is almost wholly local.

Because the Palestinian state is not fully formed, followers in the ranks of such parties are able to exercise direct pressure on the leadership. As the governing party which has proved corrupt and inept in administering the Palestinian entity, Fatah has seen its standing wane. By contrast, Hamas has a history of providing free social services to the needy and is not tainted with a history of corruption and cronyism.

In short, while political Islam is ascendant in the emerging electoral politics of the Middle East, the reasons for its successes are varied and specific to each country. This is not a case of “one size fits all.” That is the least that those who mold public opinion in the United States ought to grasp.

As for the policy makers in the Bush administration, they will, sooner or later, have to face reality and deal with organizations such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, as they have found themselves forced to play ball with the religious parties in an Iraq occupied by their troops.

Dilip Hiro is the author of Secrets and Lies: Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After and The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies, both published by Nation Books.

Copyright 2005 Dilip Hiro

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Hamas Campaign Rally in Nablus

Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

“Supporters of the radical Islamic movement Hamas showed suport for the group Sunday at a campaign rally in the West Bank City of Nablus.”

(Photo caption via NY Times.)

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Morocco’s King Aims to Build a Modern Islamic Democracy

The heading to an article in Der Spiegel on recent changes in Morocco asks:

Moroccan King Mohammed VI is using a tolerant interpretation of the Koran in an attempt to modernize his country. Will it become a model state for a democratic version of Islam?

To put it simply, the answer is no. There is a great deal of attention being given to the word democracy and anyone who uses it in the Middle East, especially the local ruling elite. In short, democracy entails winners and losers. So far its pretty well known who the winners and losers are in the system. Assuming the system has a finite scale, it stands to reason then that the local ruling elite must cede some power to other actors. This won’t be happening anytime soon. No current Arab, Muslim, ruler is going to establish a system in which, he – yes they’re all male – may lose, not even M6 (as he’s known to friends).

The article makes for an interesting read. Here is some to whet your appetite.

“Religion is making a comeback in Morocco, and more and more young, well-educated Moroccans are devouring the Koran. The new piety, no longer limited to the mosque or prayers at home, is evident in full public view. More and more women are wearing headscarves, even in Casablanca’s western fashion enclaves and Rabat’s gleaming shopping centers. The designers of expensive caftans — creations of brocade and silk, embellished with gold thread — are now selling their products as luxury couture for the next party, and their clientele is no longer limited to wealthy tourists.”

“The public debate in Morocco currently revolves around ways to reconcile the demands of feminists with the Islamists’ concept of family. Should women be permitted to go to the beach in a bikini? Should they be able to hold high-ranking public office? Do illegitimate children receive the mother’s citizenship? The answers to these and other questions, in Morocco and in other Arab countries, will likely reveal whether the Islamic world is even capable of reform.”

Ed: Full article below

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