No other choice?

No other choice?
Islamist gains in Mideast elections send U.S., region down uncertain road.

 What if you hold an election and the wrong candidate wins?

In essence, that is the quandary that faces the Bush administration and its “march for democracy” in the Middle East. Consider a favorite, a winner and an upstart in the region’s current round of electoral fever:


In Iraq, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq heads the alliance of Shiite religious parties that now dominates the interim government and is the odds-on favorite to win U.S.-backed elections on Thursday for a full four-year term.

The alliance wants to secure Shiite majority rule for the first time in Iraq’s history. It also wants to institute Islamic law and deprive Iraq’s women of equal rights, according to David Phillips, a former State Department adviser on Iraq. For help on such theocratic matters, it can turn to its main ally, Iran, an alleged nuclear rogue and part of President Bush’s “axis of evil.”

“These elections are nothing to celebrate,” said Phillips, author of “Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco.” “What could result will make the current sectarian strife look like a picnic.”

In Egypt, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood emerged from the third and final round of parliamentary elections last week as the country’s largest opposition party. Members of the Brotherhood, running as independent candidates, increased their representation in Egypt’s 454-seat parliament nearly sixfold, while secular and liberal opposition parties were the big losers.

Although the Brotherhood has renounced the use of violence, secular Egyptians and the country’s sizable Christian minority remain anxious. Although Islam is the official state religion, under Egypt’s constitution Islamic law is only one source of legislation. In the spirit of its longtime slogan, “Islam is the solution,” the Brotherhood wants an Egypt governed totally by Islamic law.

“The Brotherhood says it has an allegiance to democracy. My guess is that it is a thin allegiance,” said Robert Dreyfuss, author of “Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.”

Dreyfuss predicts that the Brotherhood’s push for greater influence of Islam in daily life “will alienate Egypt’s secular elite, which would create a backlash. What happens then?”

In the Palestinian territories, the militant group Hamas, which is pledged to Israel’s destruction, is participating for the first time in legislative elections scheduled for next month. Hamas candidates will win 15-17 seats in the 66-seat Palestinian parliament, with the secular, ruling Fatah movement gaining 23-27 seats, predicts Nabil Kukali, director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

George Giacaman, a professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, says Palestinians welcome the entry of Hamas into electoral politics, even if it does not first lay down its weapons under an agreement reached between Bush and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“It is their view that Hamas should be in rather than out. They will be bound by the legislature’s decisions, and they will focus on the reform process” that has stalled under Abbas, said Giacaman, head of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Democracy.

Hamas and its political participation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could, in turn, affect Israeli politics. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces elections in March as part of a new centrist party. The ability of Israeli politicians to seek and win votes from an electorate torn between desires for security and for peace will, in part, depend on how Palestinian governance evolves and the role radical groups play.

Difficult choices

The swift emergence of these Islamist parties in the electoral scene poses an acute dilemma for the Bush administration.

If the administration encourages the inclusion of these parties in the political process in the name of democracy, they could threaten American interests and the survival of longtime U.S. allies in the region.

But if the administration does not press for the inclusion of Islamist parties in the political process, America’s moral standing in the region will be further tainted, which would fuel the growth of radical Islam, also threatening American interests and survival of U.S. allies.

American policymakers are divided about what to do, analysts say.

One problem is that there is no consensus about where to draw the line between “good” and “bad” Islamists, between “conservative” or “fundamentalist” Muslim candidates and those whom Bush has dubbed “Islamofascists” — radical fundamentalists who advocate violence.

“There is no good baseline of expertise in the U.S. government about how political Islam works,” Dreyfuss said.

Unexamined assumptions also drive the Bush administration’s campaign for democracy in the Middle East, analysts say. One belief is that people in the region, if given a chance to vote in free and fair elections, will choose secular, liberal leaders eager to embrace capitalism and peacefully coexist with the West. Another is that more democracy will defeat terrorism.

Both assumptions are wrong, said F. Gregory Gause III, director of the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Vermont.

“In the Arab world, free and fair elections will bring Islamists to power,” said Gause, author of an essay titled “Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?” in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

“If they come to power, I’m very confident that they won’t cooperate with the United States. I’m also very confident more democracy won’t result in less terrorism,” he said. “Terrorists don’t believe in democracy. Democratic governments aren’t going to make them like democracy more.”

Definitions of the “right” and “wrong” candidate in the current rush of Middle East elections also differ. If the Muslim Brotherhood is the “wrong” candidate, many Egyptians ask, is the preferred option President Hosni Mubarak, a military strongman who has ruled for nearly a quarter-century?

Similarly, if Hamas, attractive to many Palestinians for its welfare programs and lack of corruption, is an undesirable candidate in upcoming Palestinian balloting, is the ruling Fatah movement of Abbas, with its pervasive graft and mismanagement, the better choice?

A fear of Islam

In the Middle East, religion is a language that galvanizes like no other, and Islamist parties — legal or not — enjoy more widespread support than ever before.

Sa’ad Hariri, son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated by a car bomb in February, says groups such as the anti-Israeli Hezbollah, regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States and other Western countries, cannot be wished away.

“They represent an important part of Lebanese society. We need to have a dialogue with them. They cannot be ignored,” said Hariri, a member of Lebanon’s parliament, where Hezbollah has 14 seats.

One reason that Islamist parties and movements are growing is that in the past three decades, socialism, capitalism and secular, authoritarian governments have been tried and — in eyes of many Arabs — found wanting.

Also, with their support for anti-democratic governments in the Arab world — from the ruling royal family in Saudi Arabia to Mubarak in Egypt — successive American administrations made the pitch of genuine pro-democracy activists in the region a much harder sell.

Particularly since Ayatollah Khomeini’s takeover of Iran in 1979, Arab dictators have prolonged their rule by perfecting the art of playing off American fears of Islamists, saying it is either Khomeini-like theocrats or us.

From this mix of deliberate and misguided policies and unintended consequences, Dreyfuss concludes that the emphasis on elections in the Middle East is wrong. Instead, he said, the United States should focus on encouraging the role of secular nationalist and liberal organizations, leveling the political playing field with the already well-organized Islamic groups.

“Things need to proceed slowly,” he said. “At a time when the level of anger and bitterness is intensifying across the region and the potential for backlash is high, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are the likely beneficiaries.”

Some experts suggest that given the recent history of the Middle East, the political coming-of-age of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood is a necessary evil.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, cites the example of Egypt to suggest that any change in a region where no leader has ever been replaced in an election is better than no change at all.

“It is certainly possible that fundamentalists, if they gained power in Egypt, would try to end representative government,” Gerecht wrote in his 2004 book, “The Islamic Paradox.”

“But the United States would still be better off with this alternative than with a secular dictatorship, like Mubarak’s, which oppresses and feeds fundamentalism. Without Mubarak or the general who is likely to succeed him, evolution starts.”

Phillips, reflecting on the potential dangers of a sweeping success by Iraqi Shiite religious parties in Thursday’s voting, said, “Democracy isn’t measured by the number of elections you have. It is measured by the strength of civil society, legal institutions and the independent media.