Is Democracy Empowering Islamists? ; the Palestinian Vote Was a Win for Democracy - but Also for a Radical Group the US Rejects

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Palestinian voters availed themselves of the time- honored democratic right to "throw the bums out" in their first legislative elections in a decade Wednesday - exactly the kind of action implicit in President Bush's push for democracy in the Middle East.

But by snubbing the Fatah Party of US-supported Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in favor of the radical Islamist group Hamas, Palestinians also put the Bush administration in a difficult spot.

The US might now seem hypocritical to many Arabs - encouraging democracy in the Middle East, while rejecting the choices that result from its exercise. At the same time, questions mount over whether Mr. Bush's campaign for democracy is encouraging the empowerment of Islamist militants across the region.

"This [election result] is really going to scare ... other governments in the region, and the Egyptians in particular are going to tell the US, 'We told you so,' " says Arthur Hughes, a former deputy assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs. "They'll see this as more evidence of what comes from our pressure to open up their societies, but they won't acknowledge that their hard-line tactics are what are leading to the growth" of Islamic extremism.

The Palestinian results, which give an organization on the US list of terrorist groups a majority in the 132-seat Legislative Council, are part of a trend across Muslim countries, experts say.

"The victory of Hamas cannot be seen in isolation from the major accomplishments of Islamists across Muslim lands," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "There's a pattern here of Arab and Muslim electorates fed up with the secular governments that have failed to deliver the goods, both in economic terms and protecting the security of the homeland."

The "irony," Mr. Gerges adds, is that the Bush administration's championing of the Middle East's democratization has allowed the radical Islamists to "flex their political muscle" - from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Lebanon and Iraq.

Some historians argue that radical groups' entry into mainstream politics has led them to moderate their stances: The Irish Republican Army or former guerrilla groups in Central America are often cited as examples.

Others, though, say this moderating process, if undertaken at all, takes time - and does not happen in a vacuum. The US, they add, is going to have to decide how to deal with the Palestinians and the Middle East peace process in a period of deep uncertainty for the region.

Bush reiterated this week that the US will not work with Hamas unless it dramatically modifies its behavior and removes from its platform a call for the destruction of the state of Israel. …