Tuesday, February 07, 2006
Telhami on Impact of Hamas Victory
Telhami outlined some of the dilemmas we now face.
On the one hand, this is a major development--he termed it a "revolution"--for the first time in the Arab world, you have had a fully free election where an incumbent government steps down--this is not simply the transfer of a few seats in parliament to give the appearance of change. It is, indeed, an overthrow of the old regime, the former ruling party, at the ballot box.
But now not only the Palestinians but the entire Arab and larger Muslim worlds are looking to see how the United States can relate to an Islamist government. Is the United States, once again, going to backtrack on its commitment to democracy because it is not satisfied with the outcome?
Hamas' victory also demonstrates that Islamists do have at least a good portion of the "street" behind them--that they can win elections. The recent riots and protests over the Danish cartoons shows the mobilizing power of the Islamist politicians and how existing governments have not been able to tap down the anger, but instead have tried to co-opt it.
If Hamas succeeds in buidling an effective administration, it also creates problems for U.S. allies like Jordan and Egypt which have used authoritarian methods to contain and control the Islamist movements.
How will Hamas govern? No one should have been surprised that Hamas had such support--but it was not entirely expected that Hamas would end up dominating the government. Even Hamas leaders were expecting to have "influence"--perhaps gain control of several ministries that would enhance their social welfare infrastructure, be in a position to act as critics and gadflies--but the expectation was that Fatah would continue to handle the international portfolios. Now that Fatah has made it clear it plans to be in opposition and not to enter any sort of coalition, Hamas will have to handle these matters.
Will Hamas govern as a nationalist or a religious movement? It is the "Islamic Resistance Movement" but its focus has been limited to the Palestinians--Hamas has not sent fighters to Afghanistan or Chechnya or Bosnia. It has been a nationalist movement but its legitimacy has rested on religious grounds. Over time, the PLO could intellectually accept the idea that it would have to accept the existence of Israel in order to get a Palestinian state, on pragmatic and nationalist grounds; could Hamas undergo a similar evolution? And while Israel might be able to live short-term with Hamas in power, over the long term if there is no basis for negotiation and compromise, the situation will worsen.
What about using sanctions to change Hamas ideology and behavior? In the short term, sanctions are likely to harm the poltiical forces most likely to be amenable to the U.S. position--since the police and administration are still largely staffed by Fatah members. Sanctions are more likely to boost Hamas' popularity and Hamas might be able to capitalize on them by increasing its fund-raising among wealthy individuals and non-governmental entities in the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, particularly in the Gulf.
Useful points to ponder. I find it interesting that some of the commentary on my recent testimony before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom highlighted my comment that I didn't have neat policy solutions to trot out and that we were dealing with difficult issues. I think the same applies here.