What Egypt Can Learn from Palestine
How Salam Fayyad is undermining Islamism in the West Bank.
A persistent theme of the recent Arab revolutions has been a fear of Islamists coming to power via democratic means. For Middle East analysts based in the West, all eyes are on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and its likely fortunes in the parliamentary elections scheduled for June. Statements made by senior representatives of the Brotherhood about the impossibility of women or Coptic Christians holding the presidency, or how Iran is a model for human rights, should give democracy proponents pause, since they seem to confuse the concept with the mere holding of elections. Democracy properly understood means the development of civil society, constitutional guarantees that are not easily nullified by a ruling party, and safeguards on the rights of minorities and women—all things that Islamists have historically sought to undermine by the "one man, one vote, one time" principle that sweeps them into power and then threatens to keep them there indefinitely.
Egypt and other Arab countries struggling to prevent extremists from hijacking democracy should look to an unexpected place: Palestine. The state-building program instituted by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has focused not only on building up the West Bank economy but also on the concomitant marginalization of cultural Islamism in advance of new elections.
Hamas, the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the 2006 parliamentary elections held throughout the occupied territories, but it has controlled only the Gaza Strip since a bloody civil war a year later split the Palestinian government along geographical lines. Every Palestinian legislator's term expired more than 400 days ago, and the Palestinian Authority, based in Ramallah, has called for new parliamentary elections at least three times since then, the latest instance coming in response to the popular revolutions on its doorstep. Hamas has rejected each call, claiming that it doesn't recognize the legitimacy of Fayyad's premiership. But Hamas' real fear is clear to anyone who studies the latest polls. According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, if legislative elections were held today, 42 percent of Gazans and 39 percent of West Bankers would vote for Fatah, while just 33 percent of Gazans and 21 percent of West Bankers would vote for Hamas.
Anyone taking the Pepsi Challenge of Palestinian self-determination can see why this is so. The West Bank economy grew by 7 percent in the first half of 2010, according to the World Bank. Unemployment there fell from 20.1 percent in the third quarter of 2010 to 16.9 percent in the fourth. Since Fayyad put his program into action, 1,100 miles of road have been laid, and more than 120 new schools and 11 new health clinics have been built throughout the West Bank. The Nablus-based Palestine Stock Exchange hosts 40 publicly traded companies, the largest of which, the Palestine Telecommunications Co., made a $122 million profit in 2010. Meanwhile, Gaza is still subject to a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed because of Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel or renounce violence. Its near-feudal economy is almost totally reliant on the export of strawberries and flowers. Unemployment stands at 37.5 percent. And instead of laying roads, Hamas has been bulldozing "illegal" houses in the southern town of Rafah, leaving 150 Gazans homeless and living in tents.
Fayyad's modernization efforts have also been waged at the cultural level. In August of last year, he delivered a little-publicized speech at an annual ceremony honoring secondary-school and university students. He cited the need to put an end to "religious fanaticism, which is engulfing our schools and universities, and narrow-minded backwardness manifested in behavior such as avoiding handshaking of the opposite sex." Hamas predictably denounced this initiative as a "war on Islam" and an attempt to teach "pornography" to Palestinians. Fayyad's point, though, was unmissable: A Palestinian state should look like Dubai, not Iran.
Another, more controversial, component of Fayyad's cultural-reform package has been an attempt to rid West Bank mosques of Hamas-affiliated clerics who use their pulpits to spew anti-Semitism and to incite violence against both Israelis and "collaborationist" Palestinians. As reported last December by the Washington Post's Janine Zacharia, all 1,800 mosques in the West Bank have fallen under the administration of Mahmoud Habbash, the Palestinian Authority's minister of religious affairs, who emails every imam of every mosque a pre-approved "script" for Friday sermons. One Hamas-affiliated imam who doesn't much like this policy is Hamid Bitawi, who was cited by Zacharia as "a well-known Islamic religious authority in Nablus who delivered sermons for four decades." Bitawi is also known for calling suicide bombers "angels sent from heaven" and for providing theological justifications for why children should blow themselves up.
Michael Weiss is the director of communications at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank that promotes democratic geopolitics. He is also the spokesman for Just Journalism, which examines how Israel and the Middle East are portrayed in the U.K. media.
Photograph of Salam Fayyad by Gali Tibbon/Getty Images.