Hamas’s Victory, “The Power of Democracy”

I’ve been recalling an editorial from the Chinese People’s Daily  
Online that I read last month. It suggested that while many  
westerners trumpet the concepts of “freedom and democracy” as  
universal values, in practice western governments selectively apply  
them. It noted specifically: “On Dec. 25, [2005] the Islamic  
Resistance Movement (Hamas) put up a strong showing at Palestinian  
local elections. On the next day, the U.S. House of Representatives  
passed a resolution that Hamas should not be permitted to participate  
in Palestinian polls until it renounces violence. If the Palestinian  
National Authority (PNA) allows political participation of Hamas  
[without disarming], Washington will freeze or slash its financial  
support to Palestine. On Dec. 19, European Union foreign policy chief  
Javier Solana made it clear that if the Hamas should win in the  
election of the future Palestinian legislation committee, the EU will  
consider halting its financial aid to the PNA.” Observing that “no  
party” had questioned the “fairness of the elections,” the editorial  
suggests that “in the spirit of democracy, [the] results of a just  
election, whether liked or not, should be unconditionally accepted  
and respected.”

I’ve been thinking too of President Bush’s November 6, 2003 speech to  
the National Endowment for Democracy. With all other justifications  
for the Iraq War exhausted, Bush began using his “democracy in the  
Middle East” apologia, which is broad enough to apply to any number  
of future wars. The whole Middle East, the argument now goes, is a  
“breeding ground for terrorism” attributed to radical Islam. It will  
remain so until democracies replace the various tyrannies and  
despotic monarchies of the region. Bush made it clear he wanted to  
break with the past, implying that “sixty years of Western nations  
excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East”  
had led to the 9-11 attacks, and that now the U.S. would adopt a new  
“forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” This was the  
Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI)—an “initiative” by the U.S.  
to monitor, punish and reward progress towards “democracy” in Muslim  
countries from Morocco to Afghanistan.

I thought all this was the most transparent of ploys, or at least it  
should be to anyone with a knowledge of the history of U.S. behavior  
in the region. As a rule the U.S. has coddled royalty, supported  
repression of dissidents (especially those on the left or Islamist in  
character), supported or opposed secularist Baathism depending on the  
alternatives, backed the annulment of democratic elections when won  
by objectionable parties, and vilified as “terrorist” some political  
organizations popular enough to get members and supporters  
democratically elected in fair polls. Think of how the U.S. overthrew  
the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mossadegh in  
Iran in 1953 and imposed in its place the regime of the Shah (who  
became so hated that the Iranians rose up in the most genuine, mass-
based revolution in Islamic history in 1979 to drive him from power).  
Think of how the U.S. has abetted the liquidation of leftist  
dissidents in Iraq and Iran, or of how it once saw the Baathists as  
its “party of choice” in Iraq so long as the Baathists were  
butchering communists. Think of how the U.S. backed King Hussein in  
April 1957, six months after Jordan’s first election, which had  
brought a leftist to power as prime minister. Hussein dismissed the  
government and banned almost all political parties. Think of how the  
U.S. welcomed Algeria’s decision in January 1992 to cancel elections  
when it appeared that the Islamic Salvation Front, an Islamist party,  
would win a majority in parliament. Think of how it dismisses the  
Hizbollah and Amal parties in Lebanon, who won 35 of the 128 seats in  
the Lebanese parliament last year in elections the U.S. considers  
“free,” as “terrorist organizations.”

The Bush administration has maintained the old pattern, justifying it  
as necessary for the “War on Terrorism.” It has merely added some  
rhetoric about democracy and freedom, which sounds hollow and  
hypercritical to elites and to the masses as well throughout the  
Muslim world. Some among the elite seem inclined to submit just  
enough to U.S. pressure for reform to demonstrate to Washington what  
real democracy might mean. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt loosened the reins  
a bit last year, allowing a dramatic increase in the Muslim  
Brotherhood presence in the Egyptian parliament. Last year the  
Brotherhood candidates, who ran as independents since the party is  
outlawed, received 88 (20%) of the seats in parliament. All the legal  
opposition parties together received only 14 seats. A freer, more  
democratic electoral process would surely bring more Islamists into  
positions of power.

Surely Bush’s advisors know this, and fear the consequences of  
legitimate elections in countries where the masses despise their  
leaders as well as American imperialism. What they want is not  
democracy but the appearance of democracy: video images of queuing  
voters, watchdogs’ assurances that the balloting was fair, and a  
respectable majority for a pro-U.S. party. Thus Bush assures us that  
two more nations (Afghanistan and Iraq) have been made “free” since  
9-11, although warlords continue to dominate the former an a Shiite  
theocracy is taking shape in Iraq. But a country like Iran, with a  
multi-party parliamentary system that former deputy Secretary of  
State Richard Armitage actually acknowledged (in early 2003) to be a  
“democracy” is now daily vilified as a world’s greatest threat to  
democracy and to goodness in general. The neocons who sidelined  
Armitage and his boss Colin Powell to launch the war on Iraq, hoping  
to install Ahmad Chalabi as their strongman in Baghdad and avoid  
untidy democratic processes, have perfected the tradition of American  
hypocrisy on this issue.

And now they are confronted with what MSNBC calls “a stunning  
victory” of the Islamic Resistance Party (Hamas) in Palestine. In the  
parliamentary elections, Hamas has taken 76% of the seats, and the  
party’s green flag now flies in front of the Parliament building in  
Ramallah. This wasn’t supposed to happen; Hamas is on the State  
Department’s list of “terrorist organizations” and supported by the  
two next countries the neocons want to attack, Iran and Syria. It  
wasn’t predicted; the Boston Globe headline Thursday morning was,  
“Close Fatah win seen in Palestinian vote.” The vote has shocked  
western leaders; Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi calls it, “a very,  
very, very bad result,” while French prime minister Dominique de  
Villepin indicated that Paris couldn’t work with “a Palestinian  
government of any kind” that doesn’t renounce violence and recognize  
Israel. The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was more  
positive. “We must respect the election result,” he declared,  
“although it was not the outcome we had wished.” As for the U.S.  
president, judging from his press conference Thursday, the poll  
results have shocked and confused him. They present a real challenge  
to his “Middle East initiative” and to his belief that U.S. power and  
pressure can force people to do what he wants.

He tried to put a positive spin on things. The Hamas victory, he  
said, “reminds me about the power of democracy,” as though this isn’t  
something he talks about incessantly and needs to be reminded of from  
time to time. “You see, when you give people the vote, give them the  
chance to express themselves at the polls and they’re unhappy with  
the status quo, they’ll let you know.” This almost sounds like an  
effort to empathize with the Hamas voter, fed up with Fatah  
corruption and incompetence, and an acknowledgement that the  
democracy he has been preaching can backfire on him. He called the  
election result “very interesting” and even seemed to both concede  
its fairness and take credit for the event by stating “we’re watching  
liberty begin to spread across the Middle East. ” But he added, “the  
United States does not support political parties that want to destroy  
our ally, Israel, and. [we insist] that people must renounce that  
part of their platform.” The implication is that, however  
democratically elected Hamas may be, the U.S. won’t deal with a Hamas-
led administration nor hold Israel to the “road map” the Palestinian  
Authority had earlier embraced unless Hamas renounces violent  
resistance and recognizes the Jewish state.

But what if the majority of the Palestinian people, freely and  
democratically expressing their will, want to keep “that part of  
their platform” that calls for the destruction of Israel? Will  
Palestine become that neocon nightmare—a quasi-state with a regime  
of unquestionable democratic legitimacy that is also “terrorist”?  
Won’t that discredit the whole premise of the “democracy initiative”?  
Won’t it be necessary to demonize not just the party but the  
Palestinian people who in a massive turnout voted three to one in  
favor of Hamas? A people who (it will be alleged) misused their votes  
in voting for the wrong people, rather like the Chileans in 1970  
when, Henry Kissinger declared, they had displayed “irresponsibility”  
by democratically electing a Marxist as president? (President Allende  
was killed in a fascist coup supported by the U.S. three years later.)

There are few reasons to cheer the acquisition of power by  
fundamentalist religious forces who have already closed down all the  
liquor stores in Gaza and who would like to impose Islamic dress and  
conduct codes on women. As a secular nationalistic movement Fatah  
would seem more progressive on the face of it. But if this  
unanticipated poll result exposes Bush’s hypocrisy, lends  
encouragement to forces in Egypt and elsewhere who demand free  
elections in order to topple U.S.-backed dictators, and produces a  
setback to the neocons’ efforts to remake Southwest Asia as an  
American empire, it can’t be all bad.

Soon after 9-11, as Bush prepared to launch an attack on Afghanistan  
preparatory to a more general assault on the Muslim world, his  
administration explicitly declared support for an independent  
Palestinian state. This obvious sop to Muslim opinion was followed by  
the June 2002 speech in which Bush proclaimed Ariel Sharon “a man of  
peace,” blamed the Palestinian Authority for the delays in the “peace  
process” and announced he would refuse to meet with Yassir Arafat.  
Now, surrounded by scandal, weakened in the polls, failing in Iraq,  
he must deal with a Palestine even less inclined to accept his  
dictates. Very interesting indeed, the power of democracy.

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct  
Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants,  
Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan;  
; and  
Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women,  
1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless  
chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial  

He can be reached at:

[email protected]