Beware of the Democracy You Wish For

The United States has spent a lot of money and its citizens have sacrificed a substantial number of lives creating a democracy in Iraq.  We’ve had some modest success and are hopeful that Iraq will join the list of the world’s democratic nations.  The theory is that when nations in the Middle East begin to elect their own governments, freedom will take root and democracies and peace will spread around the region.

On Wednesday, January 25, 2006 a landmark election was held in Palestine.  Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel, and European nations, won an overwhelming political victory taking 76 out of 132 seats and crushing Fatah, the former ruling party established by the late Yasir Arafat.  Many Palestinians, tired of the rampant corruption of Fatah, decided it was time for a change.  It is often said that “all politics is local” and Hamas had recently built a lot of trust among ordinary Palestinians by stepping in to provide public services that the crooked Fatah-led government did not.  This recent election was a huge political event in the Middle East with Hamas overthrowing 40 years of Fatah rule.

By all accounts this recent Palestinian election was both democratic and legitimate.  International observers were present and there is no hint of fraud.  The outcome was undoubtedly the will of the majority of the Palestinian people.  Hamas will desire to make fundamental Islamic changes in education, industry, social aid and health.  Palestinian society may become more fundamentalist and less secular.

Neither the Bush administration nor the Israeli’s are happy with the Hamas victory.  How can the United States support a militant group that denies the right of Israel to exist?  Of course, the Israelis have announced that they will not deal with Hamas or any government that does not recognize Israel.  Mahmoud Abbas, who remains as the President of Palestine, desires to remain in peace negotiations with Israel, but has a lot less leverage now than before Hamas took control.  The results of this Palestinian election present a dilemma for the United States.  How can we claim to be in favor of free elections and democracy while refusing to recognize those who are elected?  If we truly believe in democracy this must not be conditional upon whether or not the people we favor are elected.

While the United States and Israel are shaken, Hamas has an even bigger dilemma.  Being a radical, fundamentalist, militant group is easy; having the burden of running a government is not.  Hamas must now rise above the role of agitator and complainer.  They are, in fact, the government of Palestine.  As such they will be held accountable by the masses for everything that happens in that country.  Their newfound responsibility and the consequences of leadership may cause Hamas to moderate their views over time, including recognizing Israel’s right to exist and the denouncement of terrorism.  Hamas has to decide whether it wishes to be a militant group or a legitimate political entity; they cannot be both.  With the sentiment of their citizens hanging in the balance and millions of dollars of foreign aid at stake, there is real possibility that Hamas will become more moderate, perhaps even legitimate.

Now is not the time for saber rattling.  It is time for all sides to sit back and take a deep breath. After all, Hamas rules and they rule democratically.  As such they deserve some time to sort things out.  Their decisions will dramatically affect the Middle East for years to come.

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