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Jackson Diehl

Democracy From the Inside Out

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page A19

Last week's mass demonstration by Hezbollah in the streets of Beirut was commonly described as a check on the Middle East's first mass movement for freedom, and a setback for the United States and its regional allies. It could be. But it might also serve as a starting point for the necessary next phase of the Arab awakening, which is the incorporation of Hezbollah, Hamas and other Islamic movements into the region's new politics.

While cheering on Lebanon's liberals -- most of them Christians and Druze -- and accepting the likely reality of a Shiite-led government in Iraq, the Bush administration hasn't changed its old approach to the Islamic movements that command large popular followings in the region. Together with Israel, it has -- at least until recently -- pressed European governments to declare Hezbollah a terrorist movement and strangle its finances; it has also supported Israeli demands that Hamas be "dismantled," rather than merely pacified, by the new Palestinian government. U.S. diplomats won't even talk to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the grandfather of the region's Islamic parties.

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Yet, as the Hezbollah rally demonstrated, these anti-Western and frequently violent actors will not simply melt away in the face of more democratic politics. Like the Sunni Islamists of Iraq, they may try to disrupt any transition from the region's current autocracies to rule by ballot. If so, both Hezbollah and Hamas are well armed, and they would not be easily defeated. But both movements may also choose to participate in democratic politics, in part because in Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, they can command not only rockets and suicide bombers but many thousands of voters.

Therein lies the opportunity for President Bush's pro-democracy team. If the Islamists can be induced to pursue power by politics -- if Hezbollah continues to make its case with rallies rather than car bombs in Beirut -- then those movements might be detached from their violent cells and, over time, the more extreme elements of their agendas. Reuel Marc Gerecht, an expert on the Islamic world at the American Enterprise Institute, calls this fighting bin Ladenism "from the inside out"; by participating in an open political system and competing for support, Islamists could be driven over time to moderation.

This may not be likely, but neither is it fantasy. In recent years the Egyptian Islamic Group -- a forerunner of al Qaeda -- and the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan have sworn off violence. In Jordan and Morocco, Muslim fundamentalists have been allowed to compete in elections after agreeing in advance to abide by the rule of law. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian pro-democracy activist, helped broker that deal between the late King Hussein of Jordan and the Islamists; he says similar "democracy pacts" could give Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinian Hamas full access to the political system in exchange for a full commitment to constitutional rule.

Why would the Islamists accept, especially when they are financed and armed by anti-democratic regimes such as Syria and Iran? Because, as events in both Lebanon and Palestine have recently shown, Hamas and Hezbollah are sensitive to popular opinion -- and that opinion, at least at the moment, regards democratic politics as a promising alternative to more years of tyranny and terrorism.

The strategy won't work unless a couple of long-standing tenets of American Middle East policy are revised. One is the notion that any Islamic victory in a democratic election would necessarily be a catastrophe. "One man, one vote, one time," the pithy prediction of one former ambassador, long ago hardened into State Department conventional wisdom. But it need not be so. Respect for the constitution can be enforced by regional accords, as in Latin America, or by a national army, as in Turkey. Egypt's Ibrahim, among other experts, doesn't believe that the Muslim Brotherhood would ultimately win a free election. But the Bush administration has to come to terms with the possibility that it might -- and be willing to endure the bumpy patch that would follow.

The United States also has to be prepared to set aside coercion as the primary instrument for combating groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas -- provided they observe their own cease-fires. Last week Bush administration officials suggested that they were considering such a shift in the case of Hezbollah, bending to European suasion. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas already has adopted a political strategy for Hamas, which, encouragingly, announced on Saturday that it will participate in legislative elections later this year.

Both of these steps are deeply troubling to Israel, which remains unwilling to treat the Islamic groups as anything other than a mortal adversary and military target. In the short term, at least, the emergence of Arab democratic politics could look threatening to the Middle East's only established democracy. That is a paradox for which neither Israel nor the Bush administration appears to be prepared.


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