• Reports
  • January 28, 2006
  • 5 minutes read

Hamas win sets precedent for Arab democracy

Hamas’s stunning Palestinian election victory this week signals that democratic change is possible in the Arab world, even if the United States might not be pleased with the outcome of an idea it has championed.

The Islamist movement is poised to form the next Palestinian government after winning 76 seats in the 132-member parliament to end Fatah’s 40 years of political dominance in an electoral power shift that has no precedent in modern Arab life.
“It is truly the first peaceful change of power of such fundamental proportions in our Arab history,” columnist Joseph Samaha wrote in Lebanon’s as-Safir newspaper. “We will live with this decisive milestone for years to come.”
U.S. President George W. Bush has urged the Arab world to embrace democracy, even though free elections might well empower Islamists fiercely opposed to Washington’s policies in the region, including its support for pro-Western Arab governments.
Islamist parties have sometimes done well at the polls in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Algeria, but only in Iraq have they taken power — and there only after a U.S.-led invasion toppled the Sunni-dominated rule of Saddam Hussein and organized elections won by factions representing the Shi’ite majority.
Abdul Majeed Thunaibat, head of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest party, said the Palestinian elections were proved that given a free choice Arabs would pick Islamists, not nationalist and leftist parties he blamed for Arab defeats.
“The choice of the Palestinian people has come to reflect this will for change … in the Arab world,” Thunaibat said.
Even Hamas was surprised by the scale of its victory over Fatah, the secular nationalist faction founded by Yasser Arafat with a name that was long synonymous with the Palestinian cause.
“When we took part in the elections we honestly expected to win but we did not expect to win by so much,” said Osama Hamdan, Hamas’s representative in Lebanon, adding that the margin of victory put a heavy responsibility in his group’s hands.
An Islamist party scored a similar triumph in the first round of an election in Algeria in 1991, but a military-inspired coup blocked its route to power, plunging the country into a civil war which claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, ideologically close to Hamas, won about a fifth of seats in parliament to emerge clearly as the main opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party, despite what Islamists say were unfair government tactics.
“If there had not been fraud, repression and undemocratic practices, the Muslim Brotherhood would have gained more than 90 percent of the seats they contested,” Thunaibat said.
Hamas, popular for its fight against Israel, as well as its charity work and its clean image compared to Fatah, must now decide whether to moderate its stance once it is in power.
Israel, the United States and the European Union classify it as a terrorist organization. The West says it must disarm and recognize Israel if it wants to avoid international isolation.
Hamas’s dilemma is more acute than that of another vote-winning Islamist group, Shi’ite Muslim Hizbollah, which has been in Lebanon’s parliament since 1992. Its representation is restricted by the country’s sectarian political system.
Anti-Israeli Hizbollah is also under pressure to disarm in line with a 2004 U.N. resolution. It has called for dialogue on the issue with Lebanon’s multitude of factions, while insisting its military wing is the best option to keep Israel at bay.
With its Shi’ite allies, it swept elections in Shi’ite areas last year to form a bloc of 35 deputies in the 128-seat asembly.
Backed by Syria and Iran, Hizbollah chose not to join the Lebanese government until after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005.
It now has two ministers serving in the 24-member cabinet, an engagement in government that may herald a broader transition from guerrilla group to political party.
Hamas now faces similar, but more urgent pressures.
“It is being said that Hamas has imposed new realities on the world, but the truth is that the Palestinians did that and more importantly they imposed new realities on Hamas,” columnist Sahar Baasiri wrote in Lebanon’s leading newspaper an-Nahar.
Hamas’s choice to run in the election had given it a new legitimacy. “That will force it to change,” she argued.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman)