A shift on the street

Print edition : February 24, 2006

In Kibbutz Snir, on the border with Syria, an Israeli tank spits fire in response to an earlier Hezbollah attack. - EFI SHARIR/AFP

The absence of credible secular alternatives and the rejectionist stance of the West and Israel will continue to encourage the spread of political Islam in the region.

THE stunning performance of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, in which it defeated the Fatah by a wide margin, marks the rise of political Islam in West Asia as a formidable force.

Its victory caps the impressive performance of Islamic parties wherever elections have been held in the region over the past year. Just two months ago, religious parties swept the elections in Iraq, a country with the second largest reserves of oil in the world. Despite the best efforts of the American occupiers to boost the prospects of the "secular" alternative in Iyad Allawi's Iraqiyah party, it was the Shia-supported United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) that emerged as the party with the largest number of seats in Parliament. The Sunni political mobilisation was also on religious lines, in the form of the Iraqi Accordance Front - a grouping with deep Islamic roots. It emerged victorious in its strongholds in central Iraq.

Shia religious parties also made a strong showing in Lebanon, where parliamentary elections were held last summer. Despite the much-publicised pro-Western "cedar revolution" which followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and led to the departure of the Syrians from the scene, it was the battle-hardened Islamic group Hezbollah, with well-developed links with both Syria and Iran, that performed impressively.

Led by the charismatic Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah has been seen as a thorn in its flesh by Israel, which wrongly characterises it as an Iranian proxy at its doorstep. Israel's animosity towards Hezbollah is not surprising as the group played a leading role in forcing the exit of Israeli troops in 2000, thereby ending the 22-year-old occupation of southern Lebanon.

For the first time, Saudi Arabian men were given a chance to vote in nationwide municipal elections last year. The results did not surprise many - the Islamists won overwhelmingly in the country with a strong Wahabi extremist tradition. When election results in Iraq and Saudi Arabia are taken together, it is not hard to imagine that alarm bells would ring in Western capitals. There are influential voices in the West that contend that Islamists, if unchecked, would soon have their hold on the world's largest oil resources and would be in a position to threaten Western energy security seriously.

Already the Israelis and sections of the Western media are citing Hamas' links with the Muslim Brotherhood to assert that radical Islam, with interwoven regional ties, is on the march in West Asia. The argument is stretched further to suggest that "terrorist groups" are on the ascendancy. The United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia and Israel have designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

The success of Hamas is bound to enhance the appeal of religious parties in the region provided they articulate the hopes and aspirations of the widely unrepresented underclass. As in the case of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, or the Shia religious parties - especially the followers of Moqtada al Sadr in Iraq - the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the bottom line has been that these organisations managed to mobilise the masses. Similarly, Iran's Abadgaran group, led by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, was voted to power last year because it could garner the votes of the poor.

Another reason for the success of Hamas as well as other religious parties was that credible secular alternatives were no longer available. With the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Nasserite socialism receded into the background. It was replaced by a form of crony capitalism, which has only benefited a tiny elite in Egypt. Political Islam has therefore been fast filling the vacuum and has emerged as the vehicle of mass mobilisation.

While appealing to the Muslim underclass, each of the religious parties, however, managed to adapt itself successfully to local conditions and cultural specificities. Shia parties in Iraq gave voice to the deep-seated aspirations of the Shias, who had been deprived of power since the onset of Ottoman rule in 1534. The elections enabled these parties to mobilise large numbers of supporters. While appealing to the poor, the Hamas in the Palestinian territory could convey the message that the ruling Fatah had become corrupt and many of its senior functionaries had misappropriated millions of dollars of aid money from Europe and other donor agencies.

Apart from corruption, the group also exploited the "foreign" versus "local" debate that engulfed the Fatah leadership. There has been a vigorous debate within the Fatah that the "foreign" leaders, that is, those who arrived in the Palestinian territories from Tunis following the 1993 Oslo Accords, have prevented the emergence of local leaders of the new generation.

This disenchantment sapped enthusiasm and made it difficult for the Fatah to project an image of unity before the electorate. These dissensions benefited Hamas which, by contrast, appeared united. Besides, it has an excellent track record of providing community service through a network of charities and clinics. Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last year also played into the hands of Hamas, which could claim that the Israelis had withdrawn under fire, because of the second intifada that it had led.

While political Islam has been making definite inroads into the region, the impression that an Islamic juggernaut espousing terrorism is on a roll in West Asia is wide of the mark. There is little hard evidence to suggest that the mainstream Islamic political parties and organisations have any firm linkages with Al Qaeda or the terrorist group in Iraq led by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab Al Zarqawi.

In fact, in most cases, the Muslim Brotherhood, since 1928 when it was formed in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna, has preferred to adopt a non-violent reformist approach. In the elections held last year, it won 88 seats and emerged as the largest opposition bloc. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has, in recent years, formally renounced violence. Adopting a reformist platform, it has called for the establishment of a pluralistic and democratic political system.

Nevertheless, Hamas' performance has raised a variety of concerns among neighbouring countries. Jordan, which has a majority Palestinian-origin population, has already demonstrated its anxiety following the result. As the results emerged, Jordan Television focussed on clashes between Hamas and Fatah supporters. For Jordan, a widening of the gulf between the Fatah and Hamas could find a violent reflection on its soil - a prospect that it would naturally wish to avoid.

Lebanon's Future Television focussed on the prospects of the return of Palestinian refugees following the Hamas' victory. With nearly 400,000 Palestinian refugees on its territory, Lebanon is keen to see them return to their homeland. There was jubilation in Iran, which had hosted Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Teheran in December. The fact that Hamas has close ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shia groups in Iraq could help expand Iranian influence in the region.

Egypt, on the other hand, is positioning itself for a major intermediary role. The Egyptian intelligence chief and number two in the Egyptian government, Omar Suleiman, has said that Hamas must promise to end its violent ways, recognise Israel, and honour earlier diplomatic agreements made by the Palestinian Authority. He said that failure to do so would mean Hamas would be unable to form the next government. He has acknowledged that persuading Hamas would not be easy. "They are radicals and it will be difficult to convince them to do a 180-degree turn," he said.

A Hamas delegation has already met Suleiman, who is set to visit Damascus for talks with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Ahead of this dialogue, Hamas also signalled that it was ready to extend the ongoing truce with Israel but reiterated that it was not prepared to disarm. "We understand that they [Western nations] need a quiet region, without conflicts, and we know that it's possible to attain this goal," Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy of the Damascus-based Hamas political bureau, said. "Truce is one of the projects through which we could deal," he said. "I believe that this would placate everybody if they understand Hamas' stand and talk to Hamas on these grounds. I believe that this [a renewed truce] is one of the options which we could propose in the future to cooperate with the international community to bring about peace and tranquillity to this region."

The success of Hamas is likely to jolt the American-inspired enterprise for democratisation in the region. Ramzy Baroud, the editor-in-chief of Palestine Chronicle, points out that in the eyes of the West, the "Middle East [West Asia] is not Ukraine, and its popular revolutions - even through the ballot box - are by no means a cause for celebration. To the contrary, Hamas' democratic triumph will most likely conflict with the West's grand plans for the Middle East and might in fact torpedo the once-touted U.S. Middle East democracy project."

Even before the Palestinian elections, the Americans, in consultation with their European allies, had acknowledged that the pursuit of an "evolutionary" rather than a "revolutionary" approach to reform and democracy in West Asia would be more appropriate. Under the framework of the Broader Middle East Partnership (BMEP), a much-diluted form of the earlier Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI), they have shifted the focus from demanding time-bound national elections that could threaten existing West Asian regimes to the positioning of institutions that would promote civil liberties, women's rights and private enterprise. There has been some appreciation of the idea that economic reform should precede political reform as economic liberalisation could generate a "genuine entrepreneurial class" that would demand change in the region from within.

The victory of Hamas has caused a stir that, at the outset, is likely to encourage the spread of moderate political Islam in the region. However, extremism could well be round the corner if Western powers and Israel adopt a rejectionist rather than an accommodative stance towards the group. The threat of cutting off aid by the United States and Europe or any humiliation of Hamas on the international stage in the future would only strengthen the hand of the extremists, resulting in the possibility of unprecedented bloodshed in the region.

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