The reality shown by Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections is this: If fully free elections were held today in the rest of the Arab world, Islamist parties would win in most states.
Even with intensive international efforts to support "civil society" and nongovernmental organizations, elections in five years would probably yield the same results.
The notion, popular in Washington over the past few years, that American programs and efforts can help build a third alternative to both current governments and Islamists is simply a delusion.
In Arab politics, there are primarily two organized power groups: Islamic organizations, drawing their support from a disenfranchised public mobilized by the mosque, and governing elites. Sure, there are many other organizations, sometimes even ones whose aspirations match those of large segments of the public, but their chances will remain small. This we have ascribed to bad governments always forcing the choice between themselves on the one hand and the Islamists on the other.
But this is usually the outcome of normal politics, even in mature democracies. Most people around the world would be hard-pressed to see the U.S. political system as a multiparty one. Even in many parliamentary multiparty systems, politics evolves into competition between two dominant parties, making it extremely difficult for a third way to emerge. It is a remarkable leap of faith to expect that we can engineer a different outcome in the Middle East.
It isn’t that democracy is not possible in the Arab world. In fact, the remarkable thing about the Palestinian elections was that they were free and highly contested under difficult circumstances. More than 20 percent of the candidates, including those of Hamas, were female. The ruling elites accepted defeat and stepped aside. In the limited parliamentary success in Egypt, government candidates lost in a majority of the districts contested by the candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood -- and the results stood.
But in this historic moment, Islamists remain the most well-organized alternative to governments, a situation that is unlikely to change soon. And current governments are not popular: A survey I conducted in October with Zogby International (in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates) asked Arabs which world leaders they admired most (outside their own countries). The only leader who received double-digit support was French President Jacques Chirac (for his perceived defiance of the United States on Iraq). No sitting Arab ruler received more than 2 percent.
A plurality of Arabs believe that the clergy plays "too little" a role in Arab politics. There is a vacuum of leadership that will inevitably cost governments in truly free elections.
This leaves U.S. foreign policy with limited choices. Full electoral democracy in the Middle East will inevitably lead to domination by Islamist groups, leaving the United States to either continue a confrontational approach, with high and dangerous costs for both sides, or to find a way to engage them -- something that has yet to be fully considered. Given this, skepticism about the real aims of these groups should be balanced by openness to the possibility that their aims once they are in power could differ from their aims as opposition groups.
This requires partial engagement, patience and a willingness to allow such new governments space and time to put their goals to the test of reality. Hamas, in fact, could provide a place for testing whether careful engagement leads to moderation.
If we are not willing to engage, there is only one alternative: to rethink the policy of accelerated electoral democracy and focus on a more incremental approach of institutional and economic reform of existing governments. There is no realistic third party that’s likely to emerge any time soon.
Whatever the message of U.S. foreign policy on democracy, it has not been clear in the Middle East. Most Arab governments see the American advocacy of democracy as primarily aimed at pressuring them to cooperate on strategic issues (such as Iraq, the war on terrorism and the Palestinian-Israeli issue) and at diverting attention from the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The majority of Arabs surveyed in our poll do not believe that the United States is serious about the pursuit of democracy and that the Middle East is even less democratic than it was before the Iraq war.
The focus on democracy, and the United States as a key agent in driving it, has been a distraction from other central challenges.
The single most significant demographic variable correlated with anti-Americanism in the Arab world is income. In Gaza, where unemployment is nearly 50 percent, per capita income is half of what it was in the late 1990s. Income is related to the quality of education. In Egypt, home to one-quarter of Arabs, Cairo University, the leading Arab university, is now rated 28th -- in Africa.
Human rights violations remain widespread in the region, where our own troubling behavior toward prisoners has significantly hampered our ability to lecture others. Concerted efforts in those areas of economic, educational and judicial development, coupled with a strong human rights policy, have a far greater chance to make a difference.
Despite all its troubles, the United States remains the most powerful country, still powerful enough to reshuffle the deck in the Middle East. But it will never be powerful enough to determine where the cards fall.
Shibley Telhani is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution. This essay appeared previously in The Washington Post.