In Mideast, Hamas win is a setback

The stunning victory for Hamas in the Palestinian Authority's parliamentary elections last week is a striking lesson that though outsiders can help provide a matrix for democracy in not-yet-free countries, it is the citizens themselves who in the end have to build and sustain democracy.

That is sometimes a challenge for even the most developed nations in the world. It is an extraordinarily complex one for countries in the Islamic world that must often start from scratch. Beyond free elections, democracy requires among other things an independent judiciary, a free press, internal security. And generally it works best when interwoven with economic growth.

In part, the victory of Hamas is due to the failure of Fatah, the former governing party, to shed the legacy of corruption and ineptitude left by its architect, Yasser Arafat. While Fatah since the death of Arafat has proved unable to provide sufficient improvement in community services and lifestyles to Palestinians, Hamas has worked deftly to do so.

But in the days since winning victory at the polls, Hamas leaders have shown none of the political moderation that sometimes infuses a radical - and in its case terrorist - organization with the accession of power. A key part of its political platform is its antipathy toward Israel. In the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Israeli Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog says Hamas is not likely to become a "normal" political party. Indeed, it has an incentive to "disrupt progress in diplomatic negotiations" with Israel since the normalization of Palestinian-Israeli relations could well lessen Hamas's appeal. Between 1993 and 2001, Mr. Herzog participated in most of Israel's peace talks with the Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians, and he is familiar with Hamas's tactics.

Thus, in the short run the Hamas victory is a negative for the cause of democracy and a major setback for the prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, for which the United States has labored.

For the US there are few options, none particularly promising. It is confronted by a Palestine that has undertaken welcome free elections, but the winner of those elections is anathema to the US.

The Palestinian economy is sadly in need of foreign assistance, a considerable amount of which the US has been supplying. Unless Hamas performs an early about-face, the US can hardly now funnel that aid to Hamas, which the US brands a terrorist organization - especially while the US is engaged in an all-out war against terrorism. But if it halts the aid, that will have an immediate adverse impact on ordinary Palestinians who are desperately in need of jobs to survive.

It is a key tenet of US foreign policy that economic advancement goes hand-in-hand with the march - or sometimes shuffle - toward democracy. The fact is that each nation is an individual case. Some move faster than others and the result, particularly in Islamic lands, may be a creation that embraces freedom but might resemble nothing like the model of Jeffersonian democracy that Americans take for granted.

Progress in a country like Afghanistan is going reasonably well, although warlords still guard their fiefdoms. In Iraq, the process is much messier as Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites scramble for leverage and political power in a post-Saddam Hussein environment racked by murderous insurgents.

Some cynics question whether in the long run democracy is worth the perils - like the victory of Hamas - it may generate in the short term. In the old colonial days in Africa and Asia, I spent many an evening listening to white expatriate officers arguing that their African and Asian charges were incapable of governing themselves. From the land of apartheid to the lands of communism, I have listened to too many dictators around the world attempting to deny or justify the oppression of their people.

All of those lands now enjoy liberty. It is ultimately unstoppable.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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