The ugliest blessings in disguise

The recent and much-lamented elections in the Middle East may be stimuli for Arab democracy.

Darren Bernard

It’s been a tough few months for Arab reformers. Iranian voters elected an ultra-conservative president last June, who, in his latest stunt, announced his intention to convene a conference on what he calls the “Holocaust myth.” Increasing disruptive cross-national squabbles have intensified anger and mistrust among Iraq’s ethnic communities, fueling the Sunni-led insurgency.

In Syria officials continue to stonewall U.N. investigators probing last year’s murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. And in elections last week, voters handed power from the Palestinian Authority to the radical terror group Hamas. The situation seems to be a fanatic Iraqi regime away from as bad as bad could get. Or is it?

There is no doubt European and American officials have chronically miscalculated Arab opinions. Promoting free elections is one thing; anticipating that they can actually vindicate militant fanatics is another. “I’ve asked why nobody saw it coming,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted to reporters upon Hamas’ win. “I don’t know anyone who wasn’t caught off guard by Hamas’ strong showing; some say that Hamas itself was caught off guard by its strong showing.”

Americans struggle to understand how any population can support the use of terrorism. If last year’s election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proved anything, it is that Arab voters’ priorities are not always in line with those in the international community.

No matter what Al-Jazeera says, Iranians had no particular desire to elect a walking imitation of the Muslims in “Team America” whose speech is restricted to, “durka durka Mohammad jihad.” They certainly do not like how Iran has become more isolated during Ahmadinejad’s nuclear gamble. But Iranians wanted change after the former president, Mohammed Khatami, failed to deliver on his reforms. Ahmadinejad’s anti-corruption, anti-poverty mantra took the day. The same thing happened last week in the Palestinian territories. Hamas’ win represents less of a Palestinian call for militancy as it does for an end to the corruption and ineptitude of Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party. For years, Palestinians were forced to choose Fatah’s corruption and political moderation over Hamas’ reputation for community service and terrorism. After witnessing the death of Yasser Arafat and enduring the hopelessly ineffective presidency of Abbas, Palestinians finally had enough. Enter Hamas.

This, for many of us, is where the story ends. Ahmadinejad’s resistance to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s demands will soon catapult the Islamic Republic to the front of the U.N. Security Council. Hamas’ leader, Mahmoud Zahhar, is already derisive and uncooperative, emphatically dismissing calls to recognize Israel, remake its radical charter, disarm and reject terrorism. By almost every account, the new Palestinian and Iranian leadership spell doom and gloom for immediate peace and stability in the Middle East. But whether the Hamas and Ahmadinejad victories turn out to be bad news for Arab democracy remains to be seen. Western leaders have always preferred whatever moderate Arab officials they can find in power. The problem is those same leaders (think Abbas) always have lacked the teeth to control the trouble-making fanatics in their populations (think Hamas). “The fact is, Abu Mazen wouldn’t do it,” recalls one White House official, in reference to Abbas’ inability to disarm Hamas. “He said he wouldn’t do it because he said he couldn’t do it.”

Now things are oh-so-different. The hard-line attitudes of Ahmadinejad and Hamas’ ruling elite have pushed Americans and Europeans together on two important Middle East issues. Ahmadinejad’s open threats to Israel and devilish plutonic fury have left even Iranian Parliament members in discomfort. Iranian officials know well ” despite rhetoric to the contrary ” that the West could survive without Iran’s oil on international markets. Tehran cannot.

For Hamas to meet any of the hopes of the Palestinians, the militant group will need to do what the West is demanding: disarm, abandon terrorism, recognize Israel and find an olive branch. Anything less will result in a huge loss of aid, which would prevent Hamas from delivering on its education and social services promises and, in turn, raze the group’s political future.

To be sure, Hamas has committed to playing the same game of chicken with the West that Iran has chosen. The difference is that no one ” not Russia nor China ” has reason to blink in dealing with Palestine.

So with any luck the Iranians will crumble under international pressure and Hamas will ” at some point ” see the folly of its ways. The idea that Hamas’ win may be the break the Middle East needs has found surprising favor even with many Israelis. “Finally we are standing and confronting the real thing,” one Israeli government employee told The New York Times. “It is the moment of truth.”

“I think it is the best chance for peace,” Arie Schmidt, an engineer from Haifa reasoned. “I think Hamas can understand there is no way to destroy the state of Israel and will take a course to peace.”

“Hopefully.”

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]