February 2, 2006

February 2, 2006 | Commentary on

Fundamentalist populism run amok

The parliamentary election in the Palestinian Authority on Jan. 25, which gave a landslide election victory to the terrorist group Hamas, administered a major reality check to the Bush administration's democracy agenda in the Middle East. Unfortunately, for the people most affected the election result, it produced something far more dangerous: the real potential for civil war between Palestinians, or even war with Israel.

If this outcome does not give pause to the administration's foreign-policy strategists, it is hard to imagine what will.

Especially after the elections in Egypt and Iraq, it has certainly been clear to observers in and out of the government that the potential for a radical Islamic victory was very real. Dissatisfaction with the corruption of the ruling Fatah Party, the dismal legacy of the late Yasser Arafat, has been running high in the PA for years. Furthermore, the alternative to Fatah has never been the peace-loving democrats that we here in Washington hope so fervently for.

No, the real opposition was always Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood,which has remained adamantly against any peace process with Israel and which produced the suicide bombers that sunk the peace process time and time again. Hamas is still dedicated to Israel's destruction. As a Hamas leader in Damascus told the Al Araybiya television network, "The Americans and the Europeans are dreaming if they think they can force us to change." In the wake of the election, U.S. and European governments have been forced to do something that should have been done a long time ago, and which must act as a lesson for future elections: acknowledge that political legitimacy does not simply derive from a popular vote, but depends also on the nature of political parties themselves.

Historical examples abound of people who should never have been elected to power, Adolf Hitler in Germany, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, to name a few. And yet, the Bush administration pushed for Hamas to be allowed to participate in the election -- on the assumption presumably that it would not make much of a showing.

In a meeting in London Monday, the United States led the EU, the Russians and the United Nations in conditioning further aid to the Palestinian Authority on three things: recognition of Israel, commitment to the principles of non-violence and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations. In the absence of such commitments, they threatened, the international aid spigot which fuels two thirds of the PA's economy will be shut off.

Now, this move on the part of the U.S. government is absolutely correct. In the case of emerging democracies, we do need a set of benchmarks that can help us determine when genuinely democratic forces are at work -- acceptance of the rule of law, freedom of the press, and peaceful coexistence with neighboring countries, to name a few. Yet, coming after the Palestinian election, not before, at best the set of demands issued by the U.S. government makes us look like sore losers, who hoped for another outcome. And at worst, it may be too little too late when the damage has already been done.

There is a school of thought that holds that political power will moderate the worst impulses of terrorist groups like Hamas and turn them into political actors. At this stage at least, this remains a theoretical possibility, and Hamas leaders have indeed pleaded for the continuation of foreign aid.

But their initial steps have in reality been far from conciliatory, promising the imposition of Islamic religious law and the creation of a Palestinian Army from their own armed forces. (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah Party for his part took the precaution of placing all existing security forces under his own control.)

Those of us who can contemplate these problems from a safe distance might find that Palestinian election has philosophical interest for the debate about how democracies develop and grow. What we have seen is a demonstration that democracies clearly do not develop in the absence of certain fundamental institutions. It is worth considering that another model of democratic development does exist in the Middle East, in the top-down approach of countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Qatar. This approach is modest, admittedly, as reforms of the state and the economy precede limited democratic participation. The upside, however, is that fundamentalist populism is unlikely to run amok -- as we have just seen it do in the Palestinian Authority.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First Appeared in the Washington Times