Testing the "pothole theory" in the Middle East.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Jan. 27 2006 2:10 PM

How To Civilize Hamas

Will Wednesday's winners be too busy fixing potholes to wage jihad?

If anybody is looking for proof that George Bush's campaign to democratize the Middle East has backfired, Hamas' sweeping victory in Wednesday's Palestinian election would seem to provide it. The Islamic fundamentalist group—responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians on the one hand and a wide network of health-care and social programs for Palestinians on the other—claimed 76 of the 132 seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council, consigning the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party to opposition status. The lunatics have won control of the madhouse.

How did this happen? Critics say Bush himself deserves much of the blame by promoting what Daniel Pipes and others have pejoratively dubbed the "pothole theory" of democracy: the idea that if you allow radical Islamists into the political fold and get them competing for votes—and dealing with mundane civic issues like fixing potholes and collecting garbage—they will, by necessity, turn moderate and palatable. At the very least, so the theory goes, such inclusion will force a split between the "hard men" and those willing to pursue Islamist goals through peaceful means.

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The shocking outcome of Wednesday's balloting will put that theory to the test like never before. Pre-election polls had indicated Hamas would come in second behind Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah. Against the wishes of Israel, the United States pushed for elections to go ahead, even with Hamas on the ballot. Having won with a resounding majority, Hamas will now set policy for the Palestinian Authority (even while Abbas remains president and commander of Palestine's official police force), thanks largely to Washington's push, in the days of Arafat, to shift much of the authority's power from the president to the legislature.

Never before confronted with the prospect of actually governing, Hamas asked Fatah to enter into a coalition. Fatah refused. The outgoing party is probably secretly relieved that Hamas is inheriting a government Fatah brought to the brink of insolvency with its corruption and mismanagement. Ziyad Abu Ein, a Fatah official, summed up the defeated faction's attitude on Thursday: "Let Hamas alone bear its responsibilities," he said, "if it can."

A sound—albeit limited—body of historical evidence supports the pothole theory. Scholars who study political Islam have long noted a tendency for Islamist movements to become more pragmatic and less violent the closer they come to gaining power. Speaking to London's Financial Times earlier this month, an anonymous senior official in the Bush administration cited two French scholars, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, who have long noted that political Islam becomes less caustic the less it is repressed. (That the Bush administration is using the work of French academics to justify its foreign policy is an irony too rich to ignore.) In Egypt, the banned Muslim Brotherhood has donned democratic garb since President Hosni Mubarak began tolerating the group in the mid-1980s. The movement now speaks of pluralism and civil liberties, although its supporters still hate Jews, call the Holocaust "a myth," and dismiss al-Qaida as "an illusion." A similar shift took place in Tunisia between 1975 and 1990, when the national Islamist movement adopted more liberal positions on women's rights and democratic reforms as the government temporarily relaxed its repression.

Critics dismiss Islamists' talk of democracy as mere window dressing that would be discarded if they ever came to power. Now we shall see: Some commentators worry that Hamas will create a Taliban-like fundamentalist enclave—"Hamastan," as the latest lingo has it—in the West Bank and Gaza and that Iran will step in to finance the Palestinian Authority as funding from the European Union, the United States, and Israel evaporates.

This is not what the Palestinians signed up for. As in the case of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood—which made huge gains in November's elections, despite being attacked at polling stations by government-hired goons—it is unlikely that most Hamas voters are in tune with the party's fundamentalist religious program, especially in the largely secular West Bank. Hamas won by pitching itself as the party that would clean house and bring an end to Fatah's corruption. Whether Hamas will ever give Palestinians a chance to vote it out of power is something we may not know for another four years, when the next elections are scheduled.

The more immediate issue is how Hamas will adapt to the reality of the existence of Israel, whose citizens now play the role of lab rats in Bush's grand experiment with potholes and democracy. Never a strictly nationalist movement, Hamas' ultimate goal is the establishment of a theocratic state; the elimination of the Jewish state is a means to that end. Olivier Roy writes of a shift in Islamist movements away from fights over territory toward the Islamicization of individuals (a "de-territorialized ummah," as he calls the new body of globalized Muslims). Would Hamas compromise on its claim to every inch of ancient Palestine if it felt that doing so would further its fundamentalist agenda? Perhaps, but given the supposed sanctity of the territory in question, it's difficult to imagine Hamas backing down from its stated goal: an Islamic state "from the river to the sea."

Hamas has said it will never negotiate with Israel, "except through the aperture of our rifles," yet on the last day of campaigning, leader Mahmoud al-Zahar signaled a shift when he told reporters that indirect talks are not out of the question. In fact, a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority will have difficulty avoiding all contact with Israel while governing the Occupied Territories, which means, among other things, fixing potholes. We are about to see if this theory is crazy enough that it might just work.

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