Category Archives: Hamas

Interview with Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar

‘We Will Try to Form an Islamic Society’

Mahmoud Zahar — a founder of Hamas, and one of its most militant hardliners — has called for an Islamic state in the Gaza Strip. After the Hamas takeover of the territory last week, he’s also threatened Fatah with more violence in the West Bank.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: After heavy fighting, Hamas won control over the Gaza Strip last Saturday. But it’s not clear what your party now intends to do. The assumption in the Western world is that Hamas wants to establish an Islamic state in Gaza. Is this true?

Zahar: Of course. We want to do that, but with full support of the people. At the moment we can’t establish an Islamic state because we Palestinians have no state. As long as we don’t have a state, we will try to form an Islamic society.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would a Hamas-led Islamic state look?

Zahar: There would be no difference from how it looks today, because our customs and traditions in Gaza are already Islamic. Marriage, divorce, daily business — everything is Islamic. As soon as we have a state, then everyone will have their freedom. Christians will remain Christians, parties could be secular or even Communist.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If an Islamic state is the ideal, why are there not more of them?

Zahar: If there were free and fair elections throughout the Arab world, Islamic forms of government would win everywhere. Islam is against the corruption, weakening, and materialism which have destroyed societies in Europe and America. Families are broken (in the West); there are AIDS and drugs. We don’t have such things here.

SPIEGEL ONLINE:  What will Hamas’ future relationship to Israel be?

Zahar: We are ready to speak with everyone about everything. Of course we have to speak with the Israelis, de facto, for example over trade. We also have to speak with them about cross-border issues, like the movement of severely ill patients and protection from bird flu and how we can avoid environmental catastrophes. We won’t discuss politics, because the Israelis have no political agenda with us. The political agenda of Condoleezza Rice and Ehud Olmert with President Mahmoud Abbas consists of trading kisses every two weeks — but with empty hands. We will only talk about essential things.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the moment there are no attacks on Israel by Hamas’ military wing. Is this a new doctrine?

Zahar: Yes, at the moment we have to deal with two enemies at the same time. Also, the Israelis have halted their aggression. That’s a direct result of our attacks on Sderot (in Israel) — the Israelis have suffered too much. Thousands of citizens had to leave (Sderot), and the Israeli government had to pay for their hotels. Factories and offices in Sderot also had to close.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called this a good moment to push forward with the peace process. Will Gaza and Hamas definitely stay out of any such talks?

MAHMOUD ZAHAR

Mahmoud Zahar, a doctor by profession, is one of the founders of Hamas, the Palestinians’ Islamist party. Israel considers him a hardliner and tried to kill him with a rocket assault on his house in 2003. Zahar’s oldest son died in the attack. He is a sworn enemy of his rival party, Fatah, and he took over Hamas’ leadership after Israel killed his predecessor, Abd al- Aziz al- Rantissi.

During the Palestinians’ 2006 parliamentary election, Zahar said Hamas “would never recognize or negotiate with Israel.” Israel’s existence, he said, was “illegal.” After Hamas’ victory election he functioned as foreign minister in the Hamas- dominated cabinet, but was recalled in March 2007 after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, pressure from neighboring countries, formed a “unity government” with a power- sharing agreement between Fatah and Hamas.

 

Zahar: What kind of peace process is it? There will only be lots of chit-chat. Meanwhile the occupation will continue, and the Israelis will remain here to destroy our lives.SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the West there is a fear that the Gaza Strip may become a playground for international terrorism. Is this danger real?

Zahar: Our people can’t distinguish between resistance and terrorism. We’re fighting for the liberation of our land from an occupation. When people in Europe had to fight the Nazis, they were honored, later, as freedom fighters. No one would have called Charles de Gaulle a terrorist.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There has been talk in Israel about turning off electricity, water, and gas in Gaza. Could the people in Gaza starve?

Zahar: In that case Israel would have to open its borders. People wouldn’t starve to death before violently storming the borders. Israel also loses $2 million in business income for every day the border stays closed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The international community plans to release all the aid money it has withheld from Palestinians for over a year to the Fatah government in the West Bank. Will the West Bank become a kind of luxury-Palestine, while the Gaza Strip starves?

Zahar: Fatah in the West Bank will receive money, and they will have to pass it on to Gaza. If it doesn’t, it will lose Gaza forever. We would also have to search for alternatives. We have a very good image among people throughout the Arab world. If we want, we can get $5 million per month in donations from Egypt. We have also received money from foreign countries in the past — $82 million from Kuwait, $50 million from Libya. I personally once brought $20 million from Iran to the Gaza Strip in a suitcase. No, actually twice — the second time it was $22 million.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What will improve for people in Gaza now that Hamas is in control?

Zahar: The good thing is that we can now collect information about our enemies and informants from foreign powers. We will look for Israel’s spies.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Last week there were street battles in the West Bank between Fatah and Hamas militias. Fatah maintained the upper hand. How will Hamas loyalists defend themselves in the event of any new fighting?

Zahar: Let me ask you: How have we defended ourselves so far against the Israeli occupation?SPIEGEL ONLINE: With bombs and attacks?

Zahar: Exactly. But you said that, not me.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The split between Hamas and Fatah has never been wider. Are you still in contact with one another?

Zahar: Yes, we speak to each other. But we’re looking for the true Fatah so its members can take part in our new organization and plans for the future. The true, pure Fatah is the real loser (in this conflict) because its party in the West Bank is collaborating with Israel. In Gaza we have beaten those elements that collaborate with Israel. We have beaten everyone who represented an obstacle — the ones who wanted to keep us from defending ourselves.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The militant wings of Fatah and Hamas have been fully armed over the last few months. Are these weapons still in circulation?

Zahar: There are naturally very many weapons around now. Two years ago, one bullet in Gaza cost around €3.50 — now it would cost 35 cents. The American aid money has been translated into weapons. Thank you, America!

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Isn’t such a large number of weapons in the hands of militias — some controllable, some not — a huge security risk? What would happen if splinter groups started to shoot at each other?

Zahar: So far we haven’t confiscated any weapons. If there are problems with splinter groups, we will disarm them and take the weapons for ourselves.

Interview conducted by Ulrike Putz

 

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NPR: Islamic Group’s Wrath Stokes Fears in Gaza

Islamic Group’s Wrath Stokes Fears in Gaza

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Morning Edition, March 2, 2007 · Islamic fundamentalists are suspected of murdering three women thought to be prostitutes in the Gaza Strip. The deaths follow the bombing and torching of businesses and public places that radicals believe to be un-Islamic.

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What Aid Cutoff to Hamas Means

What aid cutoff to Hamas would mean

Commentary
February 27, 2006
The Christian Science Monitor

The Palestinians are the most foreign-aid dependent society on earth. So the threat by the United States to cut off most aid to Palestine after its 3.6 million people last month elected the militant group Hamas into government, is foreboding.

The European Union is weighing similar action. And Israel says it will withhold $55 million a month in taxes and other fees collected by Israel, but owed to Palestinians.

“The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,” Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told the Israeli media.

That remark prompted condemnation in both Israel and in other nations.

“Chilling and cruel,” comments Ali Abunimah, a founder of the Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian website based in Chicago. “There will be hunger.”

The goal of the financial squeeze, according to a recent New York Times report, is to destabilize a new Hamas Palestinian government so that it would fail, thereby prompting new elections.

Hamas is responsible for dozens of suicide bomb attacks over the past few years. To Hamas and its sympathizers, this is justified resistance to a decades-long Israeli occupation. But killing and injuring hundreds of civilians in Israel is also defined as terrorism.

“You cannot have one foot in the camp of terror and the other foot in the camp of politics,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the press in Cairo last week. “You have to renounce violence.”

She was on a Middle East tour to urge Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to stop aiding Palestine – at least until Hamas recognizes Israel, ends terrorist attacks, and accepts previous diplomatic agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

There’s no dispute that slashing US aid will lead to greater deprivation in the West Bank and Gaza. The US provided about one-third of the nearly $1.1 billion in aid disbursed to the Palestine Authority (PA) and for Palestinian projects last year. That amounts to about $300 per man, woman, and child.

In relation to a gross national income for the average Palestinian of $1,327 last year, any cut in foreign aid and tax revenue is serious.

In effect, Palestinians have a third-world income – a few dollars a day. And they live next door to first-world Israel, with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of about $22,200 last year. Israel gets about $420 per capita each year in aid from the US, partly as a result of the 1979 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt. Though that’s more aid per capita than Palestinians get, Israel is less dependent on it.

Noting the Palestinian aid numbers, Scott Lasensky, a researcher at the United States Institute of Peace, says, “Clearly there is room for leverage.” But he doubts the aid cutoff will proceed to the point of “mass starvation.”

One reason is that humanitarian assistance is likely to continue. And many contributors to Palestine may resist US pressure for cuts. Last week, Iran offered to step in with new money.

Nonetheless, there could be more malnutrition. A UN report two years ago said malnutrition among Palestinians was widespread at the height of the intifada when movement and commerce were strictly regimented by Israel in an effort to restrain the violence.

Another reason is that aid to Palestine comes from multiple sources. A World Bank trust fund gave $125 million to the PA in 2004. A new Congressional Research Service report lists nine other aid sources for the PA. At the top was the European Union with $105 million. Saudi Arabia gave $76 million, the US $20 million, and so on down through Libya, Britain, Norway, Japan, Canada, and Egypt. Even more aid comes from the EU, the US, and Persian Gulf nations for specific development projects ($300 million, $345 million, and about $200 million respectively in 2005).

Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Egypt would not cut off aid because it is important “to meet the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people.” Saudi Arabia has also said that it will not cut off aid. Other aid providers are unlikely to join an aid boycott.

Should Palestinians obtain an independent nation, its economic viability remains an open question. But until then, under the 4th Geneva Convention of 1949, an occupying power is responsible for the welfare of those whose territory is being occupied. Providing no aid, “Israel is not in compliance,” says Mr. Abunimah.

A World Bank report this month reckons real GDP in the West Bank and Gaza grew 8 to 9 percent last year, continuing a modest recovery that began two years ago. Extra foreign aid helped. Yet the economy is still 29 percent below where it was in 2003. Unemployment is at 23 percent.

Another issue is that the Palestinian population grows more than 3 percent a year. Each Palestinian woman in Gaza has close to six children on average; in the West Bank, 4.4 children is the average.

Some Israelis see this as a demographic threat. Abunimah holds that large families arise from the parents’ need to ensure help in their old age in a society without Social Security or a system of government medical care.

For economists, rapid population growth makes a rise in economic prosperity difficult, especially in an area with limited land and resources. What’s needed, the World Bank report suggests, is peace, the lifting of restrictions on Palestinian travel and commerce, Palestinian governance reform, and more foreign aid.

Peace will probably be expensive. At one point, President Clinton offered $35 billion in incentives, attempting to broker a peace deal. That effort ultimately failed.

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Hamas: The Perils of Power

Hamas: The Perils of Power

Volume 53, Number 4 – March 9, 2006
Exchange
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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Interview with Robert Keeley: US Foreign Policy towards the Middle East

“We need to talk to them”

A former U.S. ambassador who met with Hamas leaders on a recent Middle East trip says the Bush administration urgently needs more diplomacy.

By Kathleen Haley

Feb. 25, 2006 | Robert Keeley is an outspoken critic of George W. Bush’s Middle East policies. He also believes in the importance of diplomacy. That’s why the retired U.S. diplomat met with Middle East leaders that the Bush administration condemns.

Keeley, a former U.S. ambassador to Greece, Zimbabwe and Mauritius, was one of seven members of a delegation that observed the Palestinian elections last month and traveled to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. They were the first former American diplomats to meet with Hamas members. They also met with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League.

The delegation was organized by the Council for the National Interest, a group that is highly critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East, in particular what it regards as America’s unbalanced support for Israel. CNI, which contains both a nonprofit lobby and an educational foundation, was founded by Paul Findley, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who lost his seat in 1982 after he was targeted by AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israeli lobby.

Salon talked with Keeley about his visit to the Middle East in a recent telephone interview.

Your delegation met with major Hamas leaders, including Mahmoud al-Zahar, Shaikh Naif Rajoub and Khaled Mashaal. Your group also met with many other leaders in the Middle East, including the presidents of Lebanon and Syria. How was your delegation received by these leaders?

Well, they were, I would say, more than welcoming. They were eager to have Americans they could talk to. We were horrified in a way that we had had such easy access. Because that means that other people did not have access, or are not bothering to try to get access. These people are rather desperate to get their message out, and to talk to Americans. I suppose they thought we might be sympathetic, but they didn’t necessarily know exactly what our views were. They gave us lots of time; they were never hurried.

Was that how you were also received by the Hamas leaders? Were they also eager [to meet with you]?

Yes, they were. Hamas is on the list of terrorist organizations, meaning that official Americans can’t talk to them. I don’t know how much the U.S. media people talk to them — I don’t think enough. They’ve decided they want to go into politics. They have made attacks on Israel — violent attacks, sometimes against civilians, what we label as terrorism. I don’t dispute that. But they declared a truce a year ago, and they’ve honored that. So I think they’ve earned what they won. And they were very eager to show a moderate face — that they’ve decided to go into politics and try to achieve their goals through peaceful means, rather than through violence. I would hope that they get a broad spectrum of people joining in, so that it isn’t just a Hamas government. There are other tendencies and other viewpoints amongst the Palestinians.

Hamas does not recognize Israel. What approach do you think Israel should take with Hamas?

Well, it’s not a question of not recognizing. They don’t recognize Israel as it exists. If Hamas is going to talk to Israel, they obviously have to talk to somebody that exists; they can’t pretend they don’t exist. The question is: Where? What is your territory? What are your borders? What are your intentions? Obviously, if they’re going to have a settlement, they have to agree that the other side of the settlement exists.

As regards borders: What is your position on the so-called separation barrier, or the “wall,” which goes beyond the “Green Line” marking the 1967 borders and caves off large portions of Palestinian land? The U.S. has supported it; the International Court of Justice has condemned it.

According to international law, and the Geneva Conventions, and U.N. Security Council resolutions like 242, you’re not allowed to acquire land by military force, by military means, by occupation. If the wall were being built along the Green Line, I don’t think there would be as strong an objection to it. It wouldn’t be impinging on Palestinian land. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be isolating Palestinian cities, towns and villages from each other, and from communicating with other parts of the West Bank.

The other problem is whether Israel — although it doesn’t say so — really intends that to be the permanent border. If that’s the case, then Israel has acted unilaterally and has decided what the borders are going to be. The wall separates Israelis from Palestinians, but it also incorporates major Israeli settlements on the Israeli side of the wall. This makes people think that Israel is planning to incorporate those settlement areas eventually as part of Israel, that is, annex the land.

In regard to the settlements, in April 2004, Bush wrote a letter in which he changed a long-standing U.S. position on Israeli settlements by saying that “realities on the ground” meant that large Israeli settlements on the West Bank would remain. What’s your opinion of that?

I don’t think it was a good move. And it was a definite change in our policy. Originally, way back in the Carter administration, and previously, we considered those settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza, on Palestinian land, to be illegal. Later, the formula began to change. With President Reagan, they had great difficulty in the State Department, and elsewhere, preparing a position paper for the new administration because President Reagan was much more sympathetic to Israel. He didn’t want to say the settlements were illegal. He said they were a difficulty, or an obstacle, in the final negotiations. Later on, under George Bush senior, it became still somewhat different — I don’t remember the exact formula — it was that their future was to be settled through negotiations and so forth. In other words, they were no longer declared to be illegal or even improper. Under President Clinton [the policy] was further transformed. And again, [the Israeli settlements] became part of the final settlement negotiations between the two sides. And [the U.S.] didn’t take a strongly negative position on them.

What George W. Bush did was to, in effect, prejudge these negotiations and say, obviously some of these settlements have to be part of Israel as part of a final settlement deal. In other words, there’s nothing to negotiate about them — it has already been decided they’re going to be part of Israel.

What position do you think the Bush administration should take on [Kadima Party head and acting and presumed next Israeli prime minister] Ehud Olmert’s announced plan (which follows Ariel Sharon’s presumed intentions) to proceed unilaterally with withdrawals from some West Bank settlements, but keep the big settlement blocs on the West Bank and refuse to give up East Jerusalem?

The same thing I’ve been saying applies — that these unilateral decisions preempt any final settlement negotiations. I don’t think those unilateral actions are going to achieve a peaceful settlement because they’re taken by one side without reference to the other side.

Most observers see Jerusalem, in particular, as a “red line” for the Palestinians — i.e., that if they are not allowed to establish a capital in East Jerusalem there will be no peace. Do you think the Bush administration should be pressuring Israel to negotiate on Jerusalem?

On Jerusalem, that’s one of those four issues that I mentioned are supposed to be settled in the final status negotiations. Israel has already, again unilaterally, annexed all of expanded Jerusalem. First of all, it extended the borders of what is the city of Jerusalem, including a lot of West Bank territory, where they’ve established Israeli settlements, going up toward Ramallah in the north and down toward Bethlehem in the south. In other words, they enlarged the city. Then they annexed the whole city, including East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as part of Israel. And [the Israelis] have repeatedly said that this is the permanent, undivided and sole capital of Israel.

That is, no doubt, the most difficult issue of all in this conflict. And it extends well beyond the Palestinians because part of the Old City — the Dome of the Rock, what they call the Haram al-Sharif — is a sacred, holy site for Muslims throughout the world.

How much does the U.S. support for Israel hurt us with the Arab and Muslim world? What effect has it had on the fight against terror?

In my opinion, we’ve pursued a very one-sided policy. And it seems one-sided in the Arab world. That is, we give pretty much unbending support to Israel. I think the Arabs see us as being very biased in favor of one side in a dispute that is between Israel and the Arabs, and between Israel and the Palestinians. In my opinion, if you want to act as an honest broker, you have to be much more evenhanded.

Why do you think the Bush administration has tilted so strongly toward Israel?

I think there are some very influential people in the administration — particularly around Vice President Cheney, on his staff, and some of the people working on the National Security Council, and even some in the State Department — who have a long record of being very pro-Israel activists. They have been advocating policies that are beneficial to Israel, and they have a major influence.

Is the U.S. saber rattling over Syria productive or counterproductive?

I don’t think it’s productive. I think we need to talk to them. I’m a retired diplomat, and of course I believe in diplomacy. What we found on our trip was that there was not enough diplomacy going on and not enough exchange of views. We should be talking to people, even people we disagree with. If you don’t talk to them, there’s no way you’re going to diminish the problems you have with them, or find any solutions.

Based on the things you’ve learned from your trip, what are your recommendations regarding U.S. policies in the Middle East?

I have a specific recommendation. This came to us originally from Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League. The Arab League had a meeting in Beirut, Lebanon, in March 2002. Crown Prince Abdullah, who is now King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, presented a peace proposal, directed at the U.S. and Israel. It was an offer for all the Arab states to recognize Israel de jure, that is, with full diplomatic relations, with no question about Israel’s legitimacy, if Israel were willing to withdraw to the 1967 borders and permit the Palestinians to create a Palestinian sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as their capital.

The Arab League made a major concession on the question of the Palestinian refugees outside the territory. They said that this is a problem that should be negotiated with Israel in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, which is an old resolution about the refugees going back to 1948, 1949. Resolution 194 says that they should be permitted to return to their homes, or be compensated for loss of property if they didn’t return home. The Arab League wasn’t saying all the Palestinian refugees had to go back to Israel; it said the refugee issue could be solved by negotiation.

The U.S. and the Israelis totally ignored this; we didn’t answer it, we didn’t comment on it. I would say let’s go back and look at that.

— By Kathleen Haley

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Hamas Leaders to Watch

Several leaders who may influence or have roles in the government.

hamas.leaders.JPG

UPDATE: Imsail Haniya is now the PM.
From the NY Times.

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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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