Is democracy empowering Islamists?

The Palestinian vote was a win for democracy - but also for a radical group the US rejects.

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. At a news conference Thursday, he said a political force like Hamas, one with an armed wing that advocates violence against Israel, "is a party with which we will not deal."

Soon after the election results became known, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Palestinian President Abbas and, according to Palestinian sources, praised Palestinian democracy and pledged US support for Mr. Abbas and his policies.

Few analysts expect the Bush administration to make bold moves with so much on the ground in flux. Not only are the Palestinians embarking on the hard task of forming a government from outside the president's political circle, but Israel - still digesting the departure of Ariel Sharon from the leadership scene - is heading for elections on March 18.

The US could simply suspend contact with - and financial assistance to - the Palestinian Authority over the rise of Hamas to the government. But "the stakes are too high on the ground to simply walk away," says Haim Malka, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The alternative, he says, is for the US to work exclusively with the office of the president - provided Abbas remains in office.

Bush "left the window open" for the US to work with Hamas - provided Hamas renounces violence and reverses its stance toward Israel, Mr. Malka notes. But that kind of fundamental shift takes time, he says - and events are not apt to wait.

Some analysts worry that turmoil among Palestinians - and a radical government at the helm - will prompt Israel to shift toward more radical policies itself. A unilateral decision to include blocks of West Bank settlements inside its final borders is the kind of action Israel might take in response to Hamas's rise but which would inflame the situation, experts say. Certain actions "would virtually rule out ... arriving at a two-state solution, and if that disappears you just have conflict without end," says Mr. Hughes, now a scholar at the Middle East Institute here.

At Thursday's press conference, Bush said the election is a "wake-up call" to the old guard Palestinian leadership. Others say it also blew a whistle in Washington. "We're seeing that, for now, the only alternative to secular regimes in the Middle East are the Islamists," says Malka. "They're the only ones who have legitimacy among the people."

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