Arab Democracy Doesn't Always Go America's Way

ByABC News
January 26, 2006, 3:26 PM

Jan. 27, 2006 — -- President Bush has declared that spreading democracy in Iraq, the Middle East and other trouble spots will lead to a more peaceful world.

But as Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections illustrates, holding elections is not always a simple path to stability.

"This is a very risky process, promoting democracy in the Arab world, where Islamist parties are the only legitimate alternative," said Haim Malka, a fellow with the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Recent history shows the pro-American side doesn't always win elections in the Arab world. Far from it: Besides Hamas, which has roots in the Islamist movement and Palestinian nationalism, Islamic parties have done well in recent elections in Egypt, Morocco, Iraq and elsewhere.

"Hamas' landslide victory cannot be seen in isolation from what is happening in several Arab and Muslim countries," said Fawaz Gerges, an ABC News Middle East analyst and author of "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global."

"Whether in Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and now [the] Palestinian territories, Islamists have exposed the unpopularity and dismal failure of existing secular, authoritarian governments."

The most explosive example from recent history may be Algeria, where the Islamic Salvation Front won a first-round election victory in December 1991, only to have further balloting halted. An army crackdown targeted the Islamists and fueled a civil war that claimed more than 100,000 lives, according to the CIA's World Factbook.

In other parts of the world, unsavory characters -- including Adolf Hitler -- have gathered power through popular elections. But the repressive political history of the Middle East may create special circumstances.

"This [Palestinian election] should be a wake-up call that the only viable alternative in the Arab world at the moment is Islamist parties," Malka said, "because the regimes that the U.S. has supported have imprisoned and harassed all secular [opposition] voices."

Noah Feldman, a New York University professor and author of "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Arab Democracy," suggested past repression may not be the only reason for the success of Islamic parties at the polls.

"The reason the Islamists do well in these elections," he said, "is Islam is seen as a solution that has never been tried, and people will continue to support it until it gets a fair shake in government."

Speaking to the media Thursday, President Bush seemed somewhat philosophical about the Palestinian elections and the victory of Hamas, which the United States and Israel have called a terrorist group.

"When you give people the vote, you give people a chance to express themselves at the polls," Bush said. "And if they're unhappy with status quo, they'll let you know."

But Bush and other officials suggested the United States would not deal with Hamas unless the group softened some of its past stances.

"A political party that articulates the destruction of Israel as part of its platform is a party with which we will not deal," Bush said.

Some analysts see the Hamas victory as the end of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But Richard Haass, who advised Bush on the Palestinian issue, cautioned against such conclusions Thursday on ABC News' "Good Morning America."

"It's not an absolute disaster," said Haass, now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's important to remember that they did not get elected, they did not get their votes on the basis of destroying Israel so much as representing opposition to corruption [and] a generational change, [and that] they delivered social services and all that."

He suggested Hamas may even have leverage where past Palestinian leaders did not.

"There really wasn't much of a peace process to begin with," Haass said. "Israel didn't have a partner with the current Palestinians. They were too weak or unwilling to control things."

Gerges told ABC News Radio that political responsibility might change Hamas in ways the United States and Israel might like.

"We have to wait and see if the political process will have a moderating impact on Hamas," he said. "The jury's out there. I'd rather have Hamas inside the political process than underground."

But even if Hamas doesn't change, there might be validity in Bush's argument that democratically elected governments offer more stability than dictatorships. It's just that America must be ready when free elections don't go its way.

"People want to express their choice," Malka said. "Because the incumbent regimes in the Middle East have been so repressive and have failed miserably to deliver any of their promises and have stifled any freedom of expression, people will naturally choose an alternative. And the only viable alternative in the Arab world today are the Islamists. And we have to recognize that if we are going to promote democracy, more and more Islamists are going to win victories."

That may "not necessarily [be] the end of the world," Feldman said.

"In most of these countries, the best shot that democracy has is not for it to be seen as an American imposition," he added, "but as a universal form of government to be adapted, including Islamic traditions."

Still, some wonder if the Bush administration planned for the possibility of a Hamas victory in the Palestinian election -- or similar Islamist victories elsewhere.

"One point must be made clear," Gerges told via e-mail. "The Bush administration does not possess a strategy to deal with Islamism. The political earthquake in Palestine caught administration officials napping."

ABC News Radio contributed to this report.