Grit Your Teeth, Embrace Arab Democracy

Four reasons why there is no going back.


Almost as soon as Hamas had won a majority in Palestinian legislative elections last week, politicians and publicists began spinning the results to buttress their agendas on Middle Eastern democracy. Not surprisingly, the arguments tended to gravitate toward absolutes, though much about regional democratization forestalls this. What works in one society may be a calamity in another; what an election victory shows about a group's popularity may have nothing to do with that group's criminal behavior. Democracy will continue to be cacophonous because that is its nature, and the nature of the Arab societies in which it is supposed to take root.

Take the two broad arguments greeting the Hamas victory. One side argues it was generally a good thing, because Palestinians had managed a peaceful transition of authority, permitting voters to settle their scores with a corrupt Fatah movement that had led the Palestinian Authority into chaos. Palestinians did not really vote in an Islamic state, this narrative continues, but sought an alternative to the despair of the moment. That's why Hamas' greatest challenge will be to satisfy the public's expectations for an amelioration of socio-economic conditions, making less likely a resort to violence. Deep down, advocates of this line suggest, Hamas is pragmatic and will accept a settlement with Israel along the 1967 borders, if East Jerusalem is made the capital of Palestine.

The other side retorts that such optimism is ludicrous. Hamas may have been ambiguous during the election campaign, but never renounced its objective to regain control over the whole of geographic Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. It did not delete from its charter the aspiration to destroy Israel, even though it recently saw a tactical advantage in not highlighting this. Elections were a mistake, proponents of this line of reasoning continue, because Hamas is much stronger and now has a national platform to pursue its destructive policies. At a wider level, the fetish of democracy has thus been proven detrimental, because true democracy has no business bringing to power fundamentally undemocratic, indeed terrorist, groups.

It's difficult in Hamas' case to agree with one of the sides while ignoring the protests of the other. The movement is hardly a bearded version of, let's say, the Christian Democrats (indeed it's not even a bearded version of Fatah), and violence will continue to be at the center of its endeavors. It will not soon renounce its ambition to recapture all of Palestine, because it will not soon reject its deeply held beliefs that Israel is illegitimate, that the Oslo process was a terrible mistake, that Palestinian refugees from 1948 have a right to return to their towns and villages of origin, and that killing Israeli civilians is acceptable because Israelis do the same.

Hamas will surely have to address the day-to-day worries of its countrymen, but that hardly diminishes the fact that the movement feels it can deal with Israel in a far more successful way than the Palestinian Authority (PA) did. This means shaping a different approach than that of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who sought, but could never deliver, Palestinian disarmament in exchange for Israeli concessions.

But should such realities cast doubt on the need for Middle Eastern societies to embrace democracy, even if Islamists use this to come to power? No, at least not in principle, though there will be many occasions where one's worst doubts are confirmed. Democratization cannot come with illusions: for certain groups it will be an instrument of leverage into positions of leadership, followed by subsequent efforts to empty democracy of its meaning. But that's where societies, but also the international community, must show there is a high price to be paid for reinforcing intolerance.

Why insist on democracy? First, because the stalemate imposed by autocratic Arab regimes, particularly secular regimes, will give at some stage, and may lead to Islamists' seizing authority anyway, without a pluralistic system in place to create social power centers offsetting them. Even in secular states such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Islamists have strongly infiltrated the system, so that the despots, eager to buy legitimacy through Islamic credentials, have ceded much by way of secular values. Rather than limiting the ambitions of Islamists, this behavior has only bolstered them. Elections may indeed represent a final stepping stone for Islamists to take power, but a controlled, genuine democratic opening beforehand would allow alternative groups to gain strength.

A second reason making the pursuit of democracy worthwhile is that it instills, at least in some societies, a notion of systematic accountability and transfer of authority. Iraq's Shiites may vote Islamist, but they also have had the opportunity to be asked about their views three times in 2005. It would be very difficult for an autocratic leadership to deny them this prerogative in the future. And with the habit of free elections comes the public's growing aggressiveness in evaluating its leaders.

Even in Iran, a country where elections have kept conservatives in power for two decades, voting is bound to lead to the emergence of more liberal forces once the system has had time to find an equilibrium and judge the merits of the revolutionary generation embodied by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It may take time, but the mechanism of accountability is there, and was already twice used as a platform of protest against the system when Iranians voted for Mohammad Khatami as president.

A third reason is that democracy imposes transparency. When parties are obligated to clarify their positions to an electorate, they have to live with the consequences. Hamas' haziness on its pursuit of terrorism is disturbing, but the implications are also clear for everyone to see. The movement cannot forever hide its intentions, and voters, but also those pouring billions of dollars into Palestinian society, now have a paper trail to assess. Palestinians, in turn, can determine where their interests lie, and force Hamas in one direction or another.

Finally, there is the march of history. Democracy must reach Arab societies at some stage, after decades of debilitating authoritarianism. The Islamist wave is partly due to the abject failure of secular Arab nationalist states to let their peoples breathe. Denying a process to transcend these circumstances makes no sense. The road will be bumpy, and will be made bumpier by Arab regimes' refusing to ease their societies into a slow process that can absorb the contradictions inherent in democratization. Nor can counterfeit democracy substitute for an authentic opening.

Islamists may well win the first round in many places, and in some they might even try to ensure no second round follows. That's why domestic and foreign democratic barriers preventing this must be enhanced. But simply insisting that Arab states should perpetuate the deadlock of today not only ensures Islamists will gain strength by counter-reaction; it also displays remarkable contempt for the desire of Arabs to be counted.