Needed: Holistic Support of Middle Eastern Democracy

By Danielle Pletka
Special to
Wednesday, May 17, 2006; 12:00 AM

After democratic elections, the Palestinian Authority is $1.3 billion in debt and sits on the verge of financial catastrophe. Its elected leaders have made terrorism a tool of the state.

All this raises the question of whether the U.S. is making a fatal error in pushing for democratic reform in the Middle East. The answer is no, but Washington must push harder-- not just against terrorist regimes, but for the institutions of a free society. Certainly, the victory of Hamas has been a cautionary tale. Far from moderating their positions to accommodate the burdens of leadership, Hamas officials have toed their hard line and used the power of the state to back it up. Despite pressure from the West and other Arab governments to renounce violence, Hamas has appointed murderers to senior positions and applauded terrorist acts against civilians in Israel.

President Bush has stood his ground, insisting that the Palestinian elections were "healthy for society". Indeed, Bush has made clear that the likes of Hamas are not enough to dissuade him from the virtues of democracy.

And the President is right, up to a point. Those who would lead deserve to be tested. If Hamas is able to lead, and to deliver on Palestinian dreams, there will be calls for a reassessment. Early indications are that the Palestinian people-- who, according to polls, voted for Hamas as a protest against Fatah's corruption and mismanagement-- will be sorely disappointed.

Can more be done to help shape a diverse political landscape in the Middle East? The answer depends in large part upon whether the United States and its western allies believe that there are indeed more than two dimensions to politics in the Muslim world. If, like in the West, there are laborites and socialists and capitalists and libertarians, then there is room for growth.

The keys to success are a free press, the unfettered registration of political parties, public funding for legitimate parties and an end to state-supported political intimidation. The United States has the diplomatic and economic leverage to help make the space for true democracy in the Middle East. Not every voter in the region believes in tyranny, whether secular or Islamic.

But sowing the seeds of doubt is the stock in trade of regional leaders, a surefire way to scare America off its feckless march for freedom. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, in power since 1981, skillfully presented the dilemma in his own national elections last year. Although the party itself is illegal, candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood soared to victory. The Brotherhood benefited in part from a superior grassroots organization and in part from Mubarak's imprisonment of moderate leaders and unabashed intimidation at the polls.

The Saudi monarchy used the same playbook in its own 2005 elections. Moderate candidates (promoting regime-lite policies) were dramatically overshadowed by Islamic extremist candidates -- the so-called golden list of uber-Wahhabis. Rather than take a stand for reform or against extremism, much of the royal family didn't bother to vote, allowing hardliners an easy victory.

U.S. reaction to such political shenanigans has been inconsistent. Washington made a fuss over the imprisonment and harassment of moderate politicians in Egypt. And when Mubarak abruptly postponed municipal elections, Washington ended negotiations on a free trade agreement with Egypt. Elsewhere, however, the reaction has been muted.

Too little energy has been expended on promoting -- specifically and aggressively -- moderate parties throughout the Middle East. In Egypt, there is a wide variety of views and at least one serious, secular opposition party. Among the Palestinians, there were at least a few political parties between the extremes of Fatah and Hamas. The same is true in the more open Muslim political systems of Morocco and Lebanon.

In places where there are only two extremes, it is because the government works to ensure there is no oxygen for anyone else. And if the United States and its allies are to solve the problem, it is into that middle space that a crowbar needs to be wedged. The region has been a cradle of innovation and ideas in the past; the people need breathing room to help it become one again.

Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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