Marc Lynch had some interesting comments about the Palestinian election yesterday:
The Bush administration has talked a lot about democracy, about past mistakes in American policy towards democracy in the region, and so forth, but I think it's fair to say that most Arabs remain deeply suspicious. Recent Arab elections haven't really tested whether this has changed. Iraq under American military occupation is sui generis. In Egypt there was never any chance that the Muslim Brotherhood would be allowed to actually win, and even if it somehow had Mubarak would have remained in control over a relatively impotent Parliament. Jordan's Parliamentary elections have been sufficiently gerrymandered (via electoral law) to ensure a strict ceiling on Islamist seats. Sudanese Islamists arrived on the back of a military coup.
Hamas winning and presumably moving to form a government is the first real instance of an Islamist movement on the brink of winning power democratically since 1992.* If they take power, we are going to see some major political science propositions put to the test: does power moderate or radicalize Islamist groups? Will they be willing and able to work with non-Islamist parties in a coalition? Will they use their democratic victory to abolish democracy? Will Islamist groups concentrate on the pragmatics of rule or resort to foreign policy grandstanding? Will they use their position of power to pursue terrorism? Will they be willing to set aside doctrine and work pragmatically with Israelis and Americans? Will they use government power to impose unpopular sharia rule over their people? Will they oppress Christian and non-Islamist Muslims? Most academic and policy analysis of these questions has remained counterfactual and hypothetical, since there have been no actual examples of an elected Islamist group in power. That could now change ....
For America, I think it's extremely important right now to handle this right: honor the will of the people, demonstrate a commitment to democratic process, and see what happens. Give Hamas the chance to prove its intentions. Don't get too upset about the inevitable bursts of objectionable rhetoric by excited victors - test deeds, not early words. Above alll, don't give the Islamist hardliners the winning argument they crave about American hypocrisy. Refusing to deal with Hamas right now could effectively kill American attempts to promote democracy in the Middle East for a generation.
That sounds about right to me. Dubya seemed to follow roughly this line in his press conference yesterday when questioned about the election. He made no outright refusal to deal with Hamas and many feel-good statements about the democratic process represented by the election.
But he also made it clear that U.S. willingness to deal with Hamas will be conditioned on Hamas abandoning its call for and commitment to the destruction of Israel. I’m not sure whether refusal to recognize the outcome of the election based on who won vs. refusal to deal with that government based on total opposition to its major policy will be viewed as much more than a distinction without a difference in the Arab world. It is surely an improvement on the outcome in Algeria; there will be no coup, U.S.-backed or otherwise. However, U.S. vs. Arab nation beliefs about what is fair and reasonable when it comes to Israel differ so radically that it may be a mug’s game for the U.S. to try and court Arab public opinion on the issue without substantially altering our policy, and well beyond anything that would be considered acceptable in the U.S.
Lynch is keeping an eye on the Arab media to see how the Palestinian election is being viewed in other Arab countries, so his blog will be well worth checking for the next few days (even more so than usual, I mean).
*Some commenters at Lynch's blog pointed out that an Islamist party had already won a majority, in Turkey. True, but not really comparable since that party is so much more moderate than Hamas, and the tradition of democracy is so much more firmly entrenched (and independently supported by the army) in Turkey than in Palestine. When AK won in Turkey, people were mostly worried about the impact on women’s rights and on Turkey’s ability to join the EU and that sort of thing, not whether there would ever be another election in Turkey. But with Hamas in power, a transition to theocratic fascism is indeed one possible outcome for Palestine.