The Danger of Arab Democracy

By Yossi Alpher

Published December 16, 2005, issue of December 16, 2005.
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This week, Iraqis were set to go to the polls to elect a new parliament. At least two of the radical Islamist parties on the ballot, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Sadr Organization, maintain large and active militias.

In Lebanon, elections a few months ago returned Hezbollah to parliament. The new government, the first to take office since the end of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, awarded the radical Islamists with two portfolios. Hezbollah’s armed militia is reportedly more efficient than the Lebanese army; it boasts of having 12,000 katyusha-type rockets aimed at northern Israel.

And in the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, an Islamic radical organization with at least 2,000 men under arms, is being welcomed to participate in national elections set for January 25, 2006. Polls show it may gain anywhere from 30% to 40% of the vote.

One characteristic of all these interactions between militant Arab Islam and democratic processes is that the Bush administration is encouraging and abetting them, in accordance with its democratic reform program for the Arab Middle East. The administration has decided that in order to make democracy work, radical Islamists should be urged and allowed to participate.

Washington is fully aware that these Islamists maintain private armies and that this is a violation of one of the most basic principles of democracy, wherein there must be a single elected source of authority that maintains a monopoly on the use of force. It also knows that many of the Islamists are closely allied with Iran, a member of the “axis of evil.” It has decided to ignore these travesties on the double assumption that, first, the democratic process can only operate if it is inclusive, and second, inclusion of the armed Islamists in the governmental process eventually will cause them to moderate their policies and disarm.

This is a huge risk, and there is absolutely no proof that it will work as intended.

When confronted with the dangers involved, administration officials reply that democracy is a better option than any of the others, “let the chips fall where they may.” In Iraq, chips already have fallen and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, with 20,000 men under arms, is part of the outgoing government. Recently it was accused by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a Bush administration favorite, of using torture tactics “worse than Saddam Hussein’s.”

A senior Washington official directly involved in strategy for democratic reform in the Middle East reassured me, shortly before the recent presidential elections in Iran, that the Iraqi example of Shi’ites participating in a democracy would have a moderating effect on Shi’ite voters in Iran. When the electoral dust settled this past summer in Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emerged as president and embarked on a series of declarations advocating the elimination of Israel.

One precedent the administration appears to be relying on is Turkey, where a moderate Islamist party won elections a few years ago and has more or less maintained democratic institutions. But the Justice and Development Party never had its own militia and never engaged in terrorism. Moreover, it is watched over by a powerful and thoroughly secular military that is committed to Turkey’s peculiar Kemalist democratic tradition, which is some 70 years old. To draw encouragement from this example in order to empower violent Arab Islamists is ludicrous.

Another example worthy of notice is the recent Egyptian parliamentary elections, where President Hosni Mubarak, under pressure from American-backed reformists, allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to field candidates. They were forbidden to invoke their party’s name, and the elections were notable for violence, public indifference and government manipulation. And yet the Brotherhood, which has no militia and condemns Islamist terrorism, won about 20% of the seats. Obviously they have the potential to represent a larger proportion of Egyptians, but Mubarak is powerful enough and important enough to Washington to fend off pressures to further democratize.

Israelis are watching these exercises in American-encouraged democratization in the Arab world with a growing sense of concern. Obviously, there can be no democratic process today in most Arab countries without involving the powerful Islamists, who represent the sentiments of a large proportion of Arabs. And undoubtedly, democracy is a good thing; indeed, prominent Israelis like Natan Sharansky and Benjamin Netanyahu have argued loudly that only Arab democracies are fit and able to make peace with Israel (conveniently ignoring, it is worth pointing out, stable peace agreements with less-than-democratic Jordan and Egypt).

Yet the Arab governments emerging from these elections cannot be characterized as democracies so long as their Islamist components wield private armies that enforce their extremist agendas. In the best case, Islamist influence within these governments appears to ensure, at least in the short term, that they will be as hostile to Israel as their predecessors, and probably more.

Of greatest concern for Israel is how democratization will affect the P.A. Hamas has made clear that it will reject any attempt by President Mahmoud Abbas to disarm it after elections, when it takes its proportional place in the democratically elected legislative council of the P.A. and in Palestine Liberation Organization institutions — and Abbas lacks both the will and the facility to enforce his edict. Nor is there much likelihood that Hamas will soon revise its covenant, which is openly antisemitic and rejects Israel’s right to exist. Israelis from Ariel Sharon to Yossi Beilin insist that Israel cannot negotiate with Palestinian institutions in which Hamas is represented.

Does the American-sponsored Arab exercise in democracy contribute to Israel-Arab peace, as its advocates claim? Thus far, it clearly does not. On the contrary, in the near future American-sponsored Arab democracy is probably going to be bad for Israeli-Arab peace. It also may be bad for a lot of other things that the United States cherishes — such as Middle East stability, and human rights in Arab countries.

Yossi Alpher, former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

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