Copyrighted material


by Thalif Deen

to Hamas Takes Palestine

(IPS) -- "You want democracy -- and we will give you democracy," was the taunting comment by a Hamas supporter, as he joined thousands of demonstrators celebrating the stunning victory of the radical Islamic party in Palestinian elections last week.

Perhaps one of the biggest single political nightmares for U.S. policy-makers is fast becoming a dreadful reality: What if you foster democratic elections all over the Middle East and only radical Islamists are voted into power?

The ambitious plans touted by President Bush to "democratize" the Middle East are in danger of being derailed not only because of the Hamas victory but also because of recent electoral gains by radical populists and Islamic hardliners in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Egypt.

As a result, the argument against multi-party democracy will be used by virtually all of the authoritarian or family-run regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and also Morocco and Tunisia, who have already warned Washington that democratic elections could bring radical forces into power.

"The Bush rhetoric about democracy has little to do with Washington's actual policy goals in the Middle East," says Norman Solomon, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Public Accuracy.

He points out that the White House, while making loud noises about democratic principles and human rights, has persisted with economic, political and military aid to many regimes that brutally suppress political opposition.

"If the Bush administration were truly dedicated to promoting democratic change in the region, then Washington would not continue to pour billions of dollars into the coffers of an Egyptian regime that still imprisons and tortures many political opponents," Solomon told IPS.

For all his rhetoric about democracy, Bush has talked himself into an untenable position -- "urging democracy while rejecting the legitimacy of elected officials aligned with Hamas as parties to a negotiation process," said Solomon, author of "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning U.S. to Death."

At a press conference this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters that the only alternative to anti-U.S. radicals being voted into power is to bottle up seething anger that could lead to more terrorist attacks on the Western world.

"The outcomes we're seeing in any number of places, I will be the first to say, have a sense of unpredictability about them. That's the nature of big historic change. It's simply the way it is," Rice said.

Mouin Rabbani, contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report, has a different take on the march of democracy in the region. "I think it's important to emphasise that the string of elections held across the Middle East that have brought Islamists into positions of political power cannot be seen as simply the product of American policy," he told IPS.

In Iraq, for example, elections were largely held despite U.S. intentions rather than as a result of Washington's insistence. "The elections in Lebanon had nothing to do with the United States, having been a regular fixture of that country's political landscape since before Bush was born," Rabbani told IPS.

Similarly, Iranian presidential and parliamentary elections have been a regular occurrence for several decades, but only because one of Washington's favourite clients in the region, the Shah, was overthrown in 1979.

With regard to the recent Palestinian elections, Rabbani argued, both the United States and the EU were actually opposed to the conduct of municipal elections, and agnostic on the matter of presidential and legislative elections -- which were announced primarily in response to domestic Palestinian pressure and political requirements.

Washington did not utter a peep, he said, when the Palestinian legislative elections were postponed in mid-2005. It was only in the past month or so that Washington came out with a policy of opposing their further delay, on the whole communicated informally and only because its opinion was solicited.

"The only recent example in the Middle East where I think there is a clear relationship between U.S. pressure and elections is Egypt. It bears noting that these were also the most transparently fraudulent of the bunch, but unlike the Palestinian case Washington welcomed rather than rejected the outcome," Rabbani said.

The spread of radicalism through the ballot box may be the wave of the future in the Middle East. So, how can you give the people an ample dose of democracy and then challenge their choice of politicians? By Western standards, the Hamas victory was not an isolated aberration. But it gained wide publicity because of its potential impact on Israel, a U.S. ally.

Solomon said the U.S. government has earned widespread hatred in the Middle East not because Washington has supported democratic principles but because -- in reality -- Washington has been a powerful force against democracy in the region.

"When hostility toward U.S. policies is manifested at the ballot box, the electorate will often become a force that threatens to thwart Washington's actual policy aims in the Middle East. That's the type of democracy Washington is eager to do without," he added.

Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois College of Law, told IPS that Bush's plan to "democratize" the Arab world "is a joke and a fraud."

Such a plan, he said, is designed merely "to pressure, undermine, and destabilise Arab governments and states at the behest of the genocidal Israeli apartheid regime, and to pursue America's continuing campaign for outright military control and domination of Gulf oil and gas resources."

"For over the past three decades, American foreign policy toward the entire Middle East has been determined by oil and Israel, in that order," he added.

Rabbani takes issue with the premise that there is "an American policy to promote democracy in the Middle East."

"There is certainly an endless torrent of rhetoric, but upon closer examination much of it consists of hailing and taking credit for elections that were in any case planned or conducted despite U.S. preferences -- and much of the rest consists of celebrating dubious elections staged by regimes to contain their populations as representing genuine breakthroughs towards genuine democracy," he noted.

And this is without even referring to the massive support Washington continues to provide to any dictator or autocrat in the Broader Middle East prepared to do its bidding, Rabbani said.

"The above notwithstanding, there is in my view an exceptionally clear relationship between U.S. policy in the region and the growing electoral strength of Islamist parties and movements, particularly more militant ones," he said.

Simply put, U.S.policy is encouraging unprecedented levels of support for such groups. "I think the Palestinian case provides an interesting case study in this respect."

Solomon said that there are huge contradictions between the Bush administration's pro-democracy rhetoric and its anti-democracy policies. "And realities on the ground in the Middle East are undermining the fantasy-based policymakers in Washington. So, the Israeli iron fist, backed up by Washington, can do little to sweep away the electoral results from Palestinian votes that reflect actual opinions among Palestinian people."

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Albion Monitor   February 2, 2006   (

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