’Terrorists’ Can Become Peace Partners

The massive victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections stunned much of the world, but the outcome should not have been so surprising. Indeed, Hamas’ moment of triumph is part of a growing regional pattern.

Four years ago, Turkey’s Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party won a plurality in parliamentary elections and formed a government. A month later, a similarly named Islamic party in Morocco, the Parti de la Justice et du Development (PJD), finished third in legislative elections. Last December, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (legally banned since 1954) scored equally impressive results, garnering 20 percent of the popular vote and 88 seats in the Parliament, making it the main opposition bloc to President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Hizbullah in Lebanon and Shiite parties in Iraq have also performed well in elections.

Despite this democratic endorsement, most Western governments have been reluctant to engage with these parties or to prepare for Islamists coming to power through the ballot box. The irony is obvious: Islamists, who seem suspicious of democracy as a Western plot, took President George W. Bush’s promotion of democracy in the Muslim world more seriously than America’s autocratic friends – and possibly more seriously than Bush himself. In his first press conference after Hamas’ victory, Bush was visibly at a loss for words in responding to this “unexpected development.”

The truth is that over the last three years, some regional insiders, including me, had several lengthy discussions with Bush’s advisers in the National Security Council and in the State Department. We urged the Bush administration to formulate a consistent policy that engaged the region’s Islamists who are willing to rule by democratic principles. Some of this debate was widely publicized.

Part of Washington’s reluctance to deal with Islamists reflected concern over the reaction of autocratic regimes, some of which are long-time allies. This fear proved not only unwarranted but also counterproductive, for it has not stopped the march of the Islamists in the Arab Middle East.

Now it is time for a fresh and bold approach toward all contending political forces in the Muslim world. First, America and the West must stop supporting autocrats with aid, trade and arms. Second, there must be a push to expand the public space for the Muslim world’s democrats, so free media and independent judiciaries to protect press freedom can be boosted. Third, an active dialogue that engages the Islamists, no matter how difficult, must begin and continue.

The West needs to establish clear and consistent rules of engagement. It is legitimate and imperative to make resumption of aid to Palestinians contingent on Hamas’ recognition of Israel’s right to exist and on its commitment to all international agreements previously signed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. In an earlier step toward recognition by the world community, the PLO had to revamp the Palestinian Covenant, which called for the destruction of Israel. There is no reason why Hamas should not follow that precedent, if the demand to do so were made relentlessly. In fact, all militant liberation movements have renounced violence in due time, from the Irish Republican Army to the Sandinistas to the African National Congress.

Likewise, Israel must reciprocate every gesture of goodwill from Hamas, however psychologically difficult that may be. After all, in 1947 similar Jewish “freedom fighters” blew up the King David Hotel, killing tens of British officers. Until the 1970s, these Zionist guerrillas were wanted as terrorists by the British authorities. Then one of them, Menachem Begin, was elected prime minister of Israel and became a partner in peace with Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat.

Sadat himself was a suspected terrorist, according to the Egyptian authorities, for having plotted and taken part in assassinating a prominent political figure. But both Sadat and Begin became respected worldwide for taking risks for peace and they won a joint Nobel Peace prize.

So, for Hamas as well as for America, the West and Israel, it is futile to look back in anger and frustration. Instead, they should all look forward to creating anew the more positive legacies of Sadat, Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and even Ariel Sharon. If they could disavow their own violent pasts and take practical steps toward peace in the region, why can’t Hamas?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a leading Egyptian democracy and human rights activist, the chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center and a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).