After Palestinian Vote, U.S. Democracy Campaign Questioned

The United States, declared President Bush in his 2005 inaugural address, seeks to “support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Later this month the State Department will release it annual report on U.S. efforts to support human rights and democracy.

This is the first in a series of occasional posts on media reaction to American democracy-building in different countries.

The Bush administration’s campaign for democracy in the Arab world has hit a bumpy road in the Palestinian territories in and around Israel.

After Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament in January in an election that observers certified as free and fair, the U.S. push for democracy lost some energy, as The Washington Post put it. Demanding that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel, the Bush administration is now seeking to curtail the Palestinian government’s access to tax revenues and international aid.

The Bush administration, reported the New York Times (payment required), wants to force Hamas from power. U.S. officials haven’t officially stated any such intention, but continue to shun the Palestinians’ elected leaders. The London-based Al Quds Al Arabi (in Arabic) reported yesterday that U.S. officials cautioned independent Palestinians such as Finance Minister Salam Fayyad not to join a Hamas-led government.

At the same time, U.S. continues to support democracy building efforts in Palestinian areas. In recent years, the State Department has helped write Palestinian election laws, modernize the judicial system and fund scores of civil society organizations promoting human rights and the rule of law.

When Scott Carpenter, a deputy assistant secretary of state, answered questions on Islam Online, readers hammered him with questions about the reality of the U.S. commitment to supporting Palestinian democracy. Islam Online is a news and opinion site based in the United Arab Emirates and overseen by Yusuf Qaradawi, a Muslim scholar and Aljazeera TV talk show host who presents himself as a link between traditionalists and modernizers in the Muslim world.

“The United States is not really interested in democracy – just in controlling the leaders in a place where there is a lot of oil,” said Asif, a software engineer, in the online chat with Carpenter.

One leading Arabic daily also questioned the coherence of Washington’s democracy policy.

“If democracy is expressed through the ballot boxes,” asked As Safir, an independent Arabic daily in Beirut, “is it permissible to describe the resisting Palestinian factions as terrorists even though they have asserted their credibility and the people’s support for them by gaining the votes of the Palestinian masses?

“The truth is that the Western countries’ position is greatly contradictory.”

On the Israeli right, Zalman Shoval, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, rejected the notion that promoting democracy in the Middle East advances U.S. or Israeli interests.

“Washington is so imbued with the conviction that democratic elections will remove all the obstacles from the path of freedom and peace everywhere that it sometimes loses sight not only of realities in certain parts of the world but also of history,” he wrote for a conservative Israeli think tank.

Palestinian voters, he warns, “may have to pay the price for giving Hamas victory in the recent elections, knowing full well for whom they were voting.”

In Europe, Il Giornale (in Italian), a conservative newspaper owned by the family of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, says the West must learn to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic party popular in many countries, of which Hamas in an offshoot. The Brotherhood is too popular to be ignored, they say. “Excluding them from the elections means very simply abandoning democracy in the Arab world.”

Furthermore, U.S. demands for democratic behavior are inconsistent, according to two journalists of Palestinian descent who run the Electronic Intifada Web site.

Ali Abunimah and Arjan El Fassed say Israel has not been asked to renounce violence or recognize a Palestinian government. In any case, they say democracy cannot take root under Israeli occupation. Israel’s recent raid on a Jericho jail to capture Palestinians accused of involvement in a political assassination “demonstrates once again the fiction that there is a functioning Palestinian ’government’ in the occupied territories,” they write. Palestinians continue to live “under full Israeli military dictatorship.”

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist who describes himself as an “enthusiastic” supporter of Bush’s democracy mission, says U.S. officials lost their zeal for democracy when the results did not please them.

“The US has shown that it is unable to deal with the democratic game,” he writes. “Attempts to economically blackmail Palestinians into refraining from electing Hamas have badly backfired leaving the Bush administration and its democracy theme in major trouble.”

Not so, said the State Department’s Carpenter. “We praise the election process but do not have to live with the resultant policies just because Hamas was elected, Carpenter said. “Elections, like all the choices we make, have consequences.”

Those consequences, media commentators throughout the Middle East note, have called into question the U.S. commitment to building democracy in Palestinian society.