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Now Begins an Experiment in Arab Politics

Hamas' victory may be a test for Islamist parties in general, which are increasingly entering government. The West must soften, experts say.

January 28, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — The triumph of Hamas in this week's Palestinian elections was widely seen in the Middle East as a historic test not only for the Palestinians, but for Islamist parties across the Arab world as they reap the benefits of democratic openings.

In the wake of the militant group's victory, many Arab political analysts, including secular observers, urged American and European leaders to give Hamas a chance. A true commitment to democracy, they argued, will not work without a softened stance toward Islamist parties. Like it or not, they pointed out, Islamists increasingly are migrating into governing roles.

The Palestinian elections have emerged as an unprecedented experiment in modern Arab politics: An opposition party has defeated a stagnant ruling party to seize power. And a popular Islamist party will abdicate its anti-establishment perch to assume responsibility for running a government.

"We will live with the consequences of this fundamental turning point for years to come," columnist Joseph Samaha wrote in the Lebanese newspaper As Safir.

At a time when U.S. officials are touting democracy in the Arab world as an antidote to extremism and political violence, the Palestinian elections stand out as the clearest example of a broader regional trend: Islamist parties, some of which boast armed factions or openly hostile stances toward the United States, are gaining solid chunks of power in their governments through democratic elections. The United States regards Hamas as a terrorist organization and has called on the group to renounce violence.

Recent Iraqi elections handed a heavy share of power to that country's religious parties, some of which are tied to the Iranian government. Egypt's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood captured an unprecedented one-fifth of parliamentary seats in elections here last year. Lebanon's Hezbollah, too, has taken an increasingly active role in politics.

Islamists tend to view their evolution from fringe or even underground movements to mainstream political parties as a natural progression, one that correctly represents popular will in countries where many people are devout Muslims.

"We are rising," said Essam Erian, a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islam "is not for opposition parties only. It's the new strategy for change in this region, for achieving the dreams of equality, prosperity and unity."

But even before the Arab world digested news of the Hamas upset, there was a dawning sense of anxiety among Islamists over how the militant political force would fare as Palestinian power brokers. Algeria's Islamists were voted into power in 1991, but they were promptly toppled by a military coup. The political meltdown pitched the nation into a grueling civil war.

Since then, Islamists have stayed on the fringes of Arab politics -- and there was a pervasive sense Friday that their collective credibility hinges on Hamas' ability to live up to its newfound clout.

On satellite TV channels and in newspapers, commentators traded speculation over whether Hamas, an organization formally committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, would acknowledge Israel or comply with demands from the West to disarm.

"If they refuse to put down arms, it's a warning bell to the rest of the world that, unless secular opposition parties are allowed to operate, we're definitely going to get more of this," said Hisham Kassem, editor of the independent Egyptian newspaper Al Masry al Youm. "If Hamas sobers up and realizes they're in a position of responsibility, then it's a message to the dictators that we'll have to accept the Islamist alternative."

Many people here believe that Islamists, too, will be forced into more moderate stances -- or else be discredited -- as they become involved in mainstream politics.

"This is an experiment. The more they're in control and represent the government, it may be the kiss of death," said Karim Makdisi, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "They're good at being opposition because they portray themselves as uncorrupted, and that resonates. There's so much anger and frustration against the people in charge of all the Arab countries."

Many Arabs described the Palestinian vote as a protest against the status quo -- a collective shout of disgust not only with their leaders, but also with the international community.

"The Palestinian Authority denounced terrorism. It abandoned resistance and responded to all Israeli and American preconditions. What did it get in return?" said an article Friday in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds al Arabi. "For the first time and very loudly, the Palestinian people ... have said that they are against normalization, against agreements that conflict with their legitimate rights."

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