In the current dilemma arising from the Hamas election victory, it may be useful to recall a French experience.
Following the war of independence fought by Algerian Arabs against their French colonial rulers, France acknowledged Algeria’s independence in July 1962, leaving in charge a government of which Paris approved. That government was overthrown by a group of army officers in June 1965, after which a “Revolutionary Council” ran the country. Poverty, corruption, rising discontent, and intimidation gave Islamic fundamentalists their opening, and in 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) decisively won the first round of what was to be a two-stage election. The Council’s President resigned, the regime, with endorsement from Paris, canceled the crucial second round of the elections (which would have brought an Islamic fundamentalist regime to power), the FIS was outlawed, and chaos followed. The head of state was assassinated and Algeria was plunged into a campaign of terror launched by Muslim fundamentalists that cost an estimated 100,000 Algerian lives in less than a decade. The terrorists struck in Paris itself; a plot to fly an airliner into the Eiffel Tower was averted at the last moment.
In retrospect, the FIS was divided against itself. The murderous Islamic extremists who were poised to come to power surfed a wave of anger that had less to do with neocolonialism or Islamism than with the miseries of everyday life. It is likely that their incompetence and violence would have eroded their support in short order in this relatively sophisticated Arab country that neighbors stable Tunisia. Today all but a few of the most radical Islamists, benefiting from a general amnesty, are participating in Algeria’s still-flawed but essentially representative political process.
In the U.S. media over the past weekend, the Administration, and notably Secretary of State Rice, came in for heavy criticism for forcing the Palestinian election that produced Hamas’s “unexpected” victory (unexpected by those who still believe in American-style surveys and exit polls in settings like this). But there is no evidence that Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah would have done better if given more time; on the contrary, the polity’s fragmentation toward Hamas was evident and accelerating. Given another year, Hamas’s victory would probably have been even more decisive. It may be true that Fatah did not receive as much American support as might have been helpful, but Fatah’s incorrigible corruption would have siphoned off much of this aid in any case. Under the circumstances it is perhaps surprising that Fatah got as many as 56 of the 132 seats.
But the key reality is that Hamas, like Algeria’s FIS, is a divided movement, and the bulk of its recent electoral support has come from Palestinians far more moderate in their views than the belligerent extremists who call for the elimination of Israel. By stating that the U.S. will “never” enter into discussions with Hamas, American political leaders may please their local constituencies but will also help legitimize, in Palestinian eyes, a group of fanatics who should be outflanked, not encouraged. Palestinian voters remembered Hamas’s schools, clinics, and support systems; they hope for jobs and better futures, and Hamas’s leaders should remember that some 70 percent of Palestinians endorse the two-state solution. This goes directly against Hamas’s religious “obligation” as stipulated in its 1988 Charter, which commits the organization to the recapture of any and all Palestinian land with which, it asserts, Allah endowed the nation. In this respect the situation is more complicated even than it was in Algeria after 1991.
Whatever the outcome of this new turn of events, it is clear that President Bush’s drive to promote democracy everywhere is yielding serious new challenges in this part of the world. The rise of what Muslims call “revivalist” parties representing fundamentalist Islamic causes is transforming the politics of Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and now the Palestinian territories. What has happened here will not escape the supporters of another terrorist-cum-social-work organization, Hizbullah in Lebanon. Washington’s diplomatic and foreign-policy skills will be severely tested in the risky times immediately ahead.
Harm de Blij is the author of Why Geography Matters.