An interview with George Giacaman about political Islam

An interview with George Giacaman about political Islam

An interview with George Giacaman
BI: One of the stated aims of US Middle East policy is to engender democracy in the region. How do you see this as progressing?

Giacaman: It”s generally well known that the policies of the US are based on interests rather than any lofty ideals or values. Witness the case of Libya. Once the matter was settled financially and politically, the regime remained in place and it is no more democratic.

We have to decode phrases like reform or democracy, and I think these must be understood as country specific. US policy depends on whether we are talking about Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Palestine.

BI: You mention three countries there. Can you give us a little brief on each?

Giacaman: In Saudi Arabia, US efforts are focused on trying to stabilize the regime by opening it up for some participation of the elite. This has begun with holding elections at the municipal level and even though women are not participating, it is considered a step forward. I think probably the Americans came to the conclusion that the sustainability of the regime as is–meaning one ruling family with no participation whatsoever on the part of the population–is not realistic. This is a gradual process that might take several years but at least might co-opt some of the elites by allowing some power sharing.

For the past 30-40 years Saudi Arabia has been sending students to study in Europe or the United States. These have since populated the bureaucracy. I am almost certain this sector is eager to have a larger say in the Saudi decision-making process.

In Egypt the situation is slightly different. This US administration has tried to stabilize the situation in Egypt by including what they call moderate Islamists in the government. The multi-candidate presidential elections is one small step forward, but the real issue will be parliamentary elections, where it is expected that the Islamist groups, specifically the Muslim brotherhood, will take a larger share of the seats.

BI: Yet, they were not allowed to run for presidential elections.

Giacaman: Yes, this is true, but it may be tolerated that they run and take more seats, even if it is under a different name.

In the case of Palestine, it is again different. Reform, as far as the US administration and Israel is concerned, is primarily control of security in the interest of the Israeli state. In fact, Israel isn”t at all keen on Palestinian elections. Witness the recent statements by the prime minister and foreign minister of Israel regarding Hamas running for parliament. They are essentially putting conditions on who is going to run for the forthcoming elections. This is not only a clear case of interference in the internal affairs of Palestinians, but is highly undemocratic. It is a move that will impede the process of democratization in the Palestinian context.

BI: Nevertheless, the US and the Quartet stepped back from endorsing this Israeli position.

Giacaman: This is true. The US made some noise, but I don”t think it is very credible because it is not clear the US is able to pressure this Israeli government not to impede the process of parliamentary elections.

BI: Palestine has often been touted as the place most likely to see the emergence of a truly Arab democracy, even under occupation. Why is that?

Giacaman: There has been a long history here spanning almost 40 years of political pluralism. Palestinians are used to that. In addition, any democratic regime requires a multiplicity of power centers within the regime, otherwise it becomes a one-party state. What we have witnessed during the second intifada, however, is that the political decision making process has become fragmented. This has become a huge problem and the political system needs to re-invent itself to gain legitimacy. The only peaceful means are elections. The elections are a solution to an internal problem, which is how to unify political decision-making among Palestinians and also decision-making regarding the conflict with Israel.

So in this case, internal factors are largely to account for the drive for elections as a solution to a specific problem. In this respect we are likely to see a more democratic Palestinian political system, even under occupation, then what we see in most Arab countries. It may seem odd that this should happen under occupation, but it is not happening through the agency of Israel, on the contrary. Given what Israel is doing on the ground, it is happening in spite of what Israel wants.

BI: How important is Hamas” decision, in this context, to run in elections? They chose not to do so last time.

Giacaman: Bear in mind that there haven”t been elections since 1996, which is close to ten years ago. So there hasn”t been much of an opportunity. Only after the death of President Arafat did it become possible to hold elections, because it became clear to everybody that only through elections could the political system renew its internal legitimacy.

BI: Do you think Hamas is dedicated to the rule of the majority?

Giacaman: All indications suggest that they are willing to play the game by the rules. Aside from how many seats they may get, I think they are keenly aware of two things: the internal mood among Palestinians; and the regional and international context in which they operate.

BI: How important is it that Hamas runs for PLC elections?

Giacaman: It is important, because Hamas right now is operating outside the political order. This is part of the political fragmentation that is posing a problem. You cannot have a politically fragmented society where each decides on his own, both in terms of street action and in terms of political positions, and at the same time achieve the aims Palestinians hope to achieve. The solution is inclusion or at least to make it possible for inclusion, for the political system to include all those that would like to run for elections. Whoever then won”t run will be working outside the legitimacy of the system.

Under Arafat, the system was not open to diverse trends or change. Once you have elections, you create an opening for change. Those who enter will enter and those who don”t will not be able to speak with any degree of legitimacy on behalf of the Palestinian people. This is the most important shift that will happen if elections will take place on January 25 as planned.

BI: Are you optimistic that if elections take place this will represent progress vis-a-vis democratization?

Giacaman: I think most Palestinians want elections to be held and they understand that this could be a political turning point in the life of Palestinians. The problem, however, is that Israel is in a position to impede this process. The recent arrests of Hamas activists and others have included many of the candidates likely to run in elections, for instance Hasan Yousef and Mohammad Ghazal. Both belong to the political wing of Hamas and neither has been involved in street activities. So Hamas has lost some of its candidates, and these arrests seem to aim at either forcing Hamas not to run or to impede the process so elections will be postponed.

If elections are held and if Hamas runs, this would be a major step in furthering Palestinian democracy. Elections infuse legitimacy into a political system and whatever decisions are then taken will be perceived as legitimate. Those that remain outside the system will lose such legitimacy.- Published 29/9/2005 (c)
George Giacaman is head of Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, and teaches an MA course in democracy and human rights at Birzeit University.