Democracy and Stability in the Middle East

 The inauguration of a new Palestinian Cabinet, formed by the Islamic militant group Hamas, has inspired fresh debate over the Bush administration’s drive for democracy in the Middle East.

Hamas’ capture of 56 percent of the vote in the January 2006 legislative elections is symptomatic of a broader regional elevation of Islamists to political power. Indeed, in the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections, Muslim Brotherhood candidates running as independents won 88 seats.

The rise of these democratically elected Islamist parties has raised questions over whether democratization is in fact the route to peace and security that the West envisages. Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence provides a clear case in point, and this belligerence has since provoked the suspension of Canadian aid

Yet despite such doubts, a March 2006 article produced by The Foreign Policy Centre contends that support for democratic efforts in the Middle East is the most effective counter-terrorism strategy. In ’Democracy, Terrorism and the Middle East’, Chris Forster concludes “Democracy, in all its shades, complexities and depths, remains the best means for any country to tackle the threat of terrorism,” but he also calls for a more nuanced approach.

This involves the elimination of numerous false assumptions about democratic processes in the region. Forster cites the notion that “citizens of Middle East countries vote on single issues and that the issue is the United States” as a key misconception.

While U.S. presence in the region continues to inspire inflammatory political rhetoric, health, education and employment concerns also motivate the electorate. The Hamas Covenant states “the Islamic Resistance Movement is a humanistic movement. It takes care of human rights.” Hamas devotes a large proportion of its estimated $70 billion annual budget to an extensive network of social services, and according to Forster, “these were the main reasons that Hamas came to power, not for its dedication to destroy Israel.”

Dr. Rory Miller, senior lecturer in Mediterranean studies at King’s College, London, endorses this. “Hamas has gained political influence because it has provided schools and hospitals. A significant number of Palestinians would not have voted for Hamas if the Palestinian Authority had lived up to its promises,” he said

Similarly Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement, also maintains a civilian wing. In the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah has been active in the reconstruction of schools, clinics and hospitals. Such activities are believed to have contributed to Hezbollah’s capture of 23 seats at the 2005 general election.

Beyond the issues, Middle Eastern political parties have also been the subject of misconceptions. In the post Sept. 11 climate, Islamist groups are often indiscriminately regarded as radical fundamentalists bent on the establishment of a conservative Islamic caliphate. Indeed, Forster acknowledges that “with the rise of Islamist parties, some are doubting that democratization will bring the security the United States is looking for.”

These doubts are fueled by the hostility of some Islamist groups to U.S. policy aims. Hamas, for example, has refused to renounce violence or recognize Israel. This has provoked warnings from the Quartet of the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, and led by U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice to declare, “We cannot give funding to a terrorist organization; it really is that simple.”

Historically repressed by hostile Arab regimes, Islamist organizations are undergoing transition. Indeed the recent election of Hamas and the existence of legal Islamist parties in Morocco and Jordan are indicative of an increasing political dominance. Within this process, ambiguities persist, particularly concerning the role of violence. Morocco’s Parti de la Justice et du Development (PJD) offers a case in point. The group traditionally used the party’s Attajdid newspaper to promote violence, yet in the aftermath of the 2003 Casablanca bombings, its stance has softened considerably.

Such fluidity has raised questions over the links between Islamists and terrorism. According to Forster, “democratically elected Islamist parties functioning within the context of a real democracy will not necessarily promote violence or tolerate terrorist organizations … Security and foreign policy interests will prevail in order to remain in power,” he wrote.

While Forster champions democratization as the most effective counter-terrorism tactic, other observers have introduced some interesting caveats.

Dr. Claire Spencer, head of the Middle East Program at Chatham House, is broadly supportive of the Bush Administration’s drive for democracy in the Middle East, but points out that, “the problem is the way they go about doing it … There is not enough emphasis on even-handedness across the region and some states are more pressured than others,” she said.

Moreover, whereas Forster states “the overriding approach for dealing with organizations that employ terrorism … should be one of democratization of the countries that sustain them,” others are more cautious. Miller describes the Bush Administration’s democratization policy as “something which is more sincere than insincere” but warns that, “in the short term, the freedom that comes with democracy will give people the opportunity to promote their own agenda and this may involve violence.”