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
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
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. …