President George W. Bush has placed democratization at the center of his Middle East policy. At his inauguration he declared, “Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.” Bush is sincere, confronting not only adversaries like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also pro-American dictators like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Bush can claim success: 2005 is the year of the election. Iraqis defied predictions to cast their ballots. Palestinians also embraced the vote, electing Mahmoud Abbas to replace the late Yasser Arafat.
Elections alone do not make democracy, though. Washington should be cynical about Mubarak’s commitment to democracy. Even though 83 percent of his electorate voted for multiparty elections in a May 25, 2005 referendum, his government still determines who can run. In October 2004, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali won 94.5 percent of the vote after curtailing his opponents’ campaign. The Saudi kingdom has trumpeted its municipal elections, but the resulting councils have had neither budgetary nor legislative authority.
While the White House has treated these autocrats’ commitments with skepticism, the Bush administration refuses to extend the same cynicism to Islamist groups, many of which embrace elections but cast aside democratic values. In 1992, for example, Ali Balhadj, a leader of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria declared, “When we are in power, there will be no more elections because God will be ruling.” In March 2004, influential Karbala cleric Sayyid Hadi al-Modarresi told al-Hayat, “The first article in a democracy is the rule of the majority over the minority.”
In recent months, the Bush administration has sent mixed signals to Islamist groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. Bush has held out an olive branch to Hizballah, a group funded and armed by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Syrian intelligence. While the party does hold seats in the Lebanese parliament, it maintains its own private army and embraces violence. Hizballah’s March 8, 2005 rally in Beirut in favor of occupation made a mockery of its claim to be an anti-occupation resistance movement.
The White House has also flip-flopped on Hamas. While Hamas candidates came in second to those of Fatah in Palestinian elections, it nonetheless won the largest municipalities in Gaza. White House spokesman Scott McClellan called Hamas’ successful candidates “business professionals.” But election participation does not make candidates democratic. Hamas ran on a platform rejecting the compromises necessary for Palestinian statehood. Its charter embraced imposition of Islamic rule, with the Koran as its constitution, and it has eschewed rule-of-law. Well-known for its attacks on Israelis, it has also targeted liberal Palestinians.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, another recipient of recent State Department outreach, also has a long legacy of violence. Its armed wing has murdered thousands. Engaging any group that has been involved in terror only legitimizes the violence that propelled that group to prominence. Better that Washington support bold but peaceful politicians like Ayman Nour.
Washington’s infatuation with Islamists has emboldened such groups and deflated the morale of democrats. Condoleezza Rice bolstered the legitimacy of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq when she invited its leader to the White House. This invitation signaled that the Bush administration endorsed the Islamist group over more democratic movements, and suggested to the Supreme Council that an ephemeral embrace of democracy was sufficient. Today, gangs belonging to the Supreme Council enforce Islamic law on cities like Basra and Kut, breaking up student picnics and tearing down posters championing other groups. More recently, many Iraqis interpreted the April 2005 appointment of National Endowment for Democracy official Laith Kubba as Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari’s spokesman to be an American endorsement for his Islamist platform.
The Arab world is capable of democracy. When mechanisms for electoral accountability exist, Islamists lose their charm. In Jordan, for example, the Islamic Action Front lost half its seats between 1989 and 1993, after it failed to fulfill its promises. Unable to withstand the popular rebuff, the Islamists boycotted the next election.
There is no reason why the Arab world cannot be democratic. But for democracy to succeed, all parties have to embrace not only elections as the path to power, but also regular subservience to the electorate as their master. Because Islamists base their legitimacy upon a higher power, they are intrinsically anti-democratic and unwilling to accept popular rebuke. One man, one vote, one time makes dictatorship, not democracy.
By embracing Islamists in Iran, President Jimmy Carter replaced one dictatorship with another. The Bush administration’s flirtation with Arab Islamists risks doing the same. Washington should push for democracy, but only work with groups willing to abide by democratic precepts.