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Hamas and political reform in the middle east

About the author
David Mepham is UK director of Human Rights Watch. He was formerly associate director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, and head of policy and advocacy at Save the Children UK
The lesson of Palestine's election is that the international community should become more serious and sophisticated about political reform in the middle east, says David Mepham of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Hamas's stunning victory in the 25 January elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council raises three critical questions for international policymakers:

  • why did it happen – that an organisation labelled as "terrorist" by the Israelis, the European Union and the United States manages to win the support of a majority of Palestinian voters?
  • how should the international community now respond?
  • where does Hamas's victory leave the cause of political reform and democratisation in the middle east?

The rise of Hamas

Much of the immediate international commentary on the election result has focused on the failings of Fatah during the decade in which the movement held power in the Palestinian Authority (PA) – including the rampant corruption of senior Fatah officials and the lack of meaningful democracy within the PA. There was also a sizeable positive vote for Hamas. The organisation is seen by many Palestinians as untainted by corruption, and, unlike the PA, it has a good track record of providing health, education and other services.

The other part of the explanation for the Hamas victory – less discussed in the international media – has been the failure of the "peace process" and the radicalising and impoverishing effects of the Israeli occupation. Under the premiership of Ariel Sharon since 2001, Israel has all but destroyed the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. Israel has also continued its policy of illegal settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, and it is in the process of building a "separation barrier".

Israel is not building the barrier on its pre-1967 occupation border (which it would be allowed to do under international law). Rather it plans to build 80% of the barrier inside Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory. This involves incorporating the main Israeli settlement blocs, as well as taking over Palestinian agricultural lands and water resources. This restricts Palestinian freedom of movement, and makes it much harder for Palestinians to access their schools, health facilities and jobs.

These policies are oppressive and humiliating; they also have disastrous economic consequences. The United Nations estimates that poverty levels have more than trebled in the last five years, that 60% of Palestinians are now living in poverty, and that unemployment is around 30%. These conditions have provided very fertile soil for the radicalisation of Palestinian opinion and for the rise of Hamas.

David Mepham is head of the international programme at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) and a visiting fellow at the Centre for Global Governance at the London School of Economics. He is the author of a new ippr report, Changing States - a progressive agenda for political reform in the Middle East
(January 2006)

Also by David Mepham in openDemocracy:
-"David Held's missing links" (June 2004)
-"Accountability in Africa: whose problem? " (February 2005)
-"A mixed-bag summit" (September 2005)

The short-term challenge

Hamas's electoral victory presents the international community with a real conundrum.

On the one hand, the "Quartet" (the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations) is right to say that full-scale peace negotiations with Hamas will require significant movement on Hamas's part. Hamas does not recognise the state of Israel. It also supports violence, including attacks on Israeli civilians, as part of its strategy for Palestinian national liberation. Anyone expecting an immediate and formal shift in Hamas policy on these issues is likely to be disappointed.

But intelligent international diplomacy can still make a difference. While they are reluctant to formally proclaim it, there is evidence that some senior Hamas leaders accept the reality of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. Moreover, on the question of violence Hamas has largely maintained a unilateral truce (tahdi'a) for the past year. Extending this truce, and working for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire, should be the immediate focus of international diplomacy towards Hamas, if necessary through third-party intermediaries.

The other critical international objective should be to avoid the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Fatah's mismanagement and the disastrous consequences of Israeli occupation and closures have left the PA in a desperate state and entirely dependent on donor funding to stay afloat. In 2005, the EU provided £338 million, while the US contributed £225 million. Cutting that assistance overnight would plunge tens of thousands of Palestinians into acute poverty, triggering social implosion and anarchy. But donors are rightly worried about transferring resources to a government dominated by Hamas.

One possibility would be to press for a government of Palestinian technocrats, without senior Hamas figures in key ministerial positions, and to rely on Mahmoud Abbas, the directly elected Palestinian president, as the main interlocutor for the international community. Something along these lines appears to command support amongst the Quartet. If the immediate economic situation can be stabilised, then there is at least a possibility of encouraging Hamas to move in a political direction through a policy of gradual, conditional engagement. Pressure on Israel to live up to its obligations under international law, for example by ending illegal settlement activity, would also help: persuading a sceptical Palestinian public that the world does care about their plight and is committed to a two-state solution.

The regional prospect

While Hamas's victory has focused attention on the immediate crisis in the Palestinian territories, it raises wider questions about the process of political reform and democratisation in the broader middle east, a process advocated so publicly by the Bush administration. It is ironic, to say the least, that Hamas – a group with which the United States refuses to deal – should be the beneficiary of a free and fair election encouraged by US policy. Some will draw from this the conclusion that democratic reform in the middle east is a hopelessly misguided enterprise and one that should be abandoned forthwith. Small "c" conservatives, on all sides of the political spectrum, will feel vindicated in highlighting the risks of rapid political change and in pointing out the virtues of stability.

It is true that political change carries risks, including the risk that radical Islamists like Hamas will be the major beneficiaries of political liberalisation. While this is a reasonable concern, those who highlight it tend to overlook the diversity of political Islamists in the region, the special circumstances that account for the rise of Hamas, and the extent to which some Islamists have moderated their positions in recent years. Unlike Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan and the Justice & Development Party in Morocco all reject violence and have committed themselves to pluralistic politics.

Nor do the critics suggest a better alternative for addressing the phenomenon of political Islamism across the region than the attempted engagement of Islamists in the political process. Repression of Islamists and their systematic exclusion from political institutions has been a recipe for instability and extremism, not moderation.

There is obviously a strong critique to be made of the Bush administration's attempts to promote political change in the middle east, not least the multiple failings of its policy in Iraq. More broadly, the US lacks credibility in the region as a force for democracy and human rights because of its largely uncritical support for Israel, and its military, diplomatic and often financial backing for many of the more authoritarian regimes in the region. Even when it is particularly outspoken on the need for greater democracy, for example in its recent dealings with President Mubarak of Egypt, the administration's anti-terrorism agenda consistently trumps its political reform objectives.

Also in openDemocracy on Palestinian experience and politics:

- John Berger, "Undefeated despair" (January 2006)
- Jane Kinninmont, "Life after Sharon: Palestinian prospects"
(January 2006)
- Yasser Abu Moailek, "Fatah's awkward ‘independents'"
(January 2006)
- Lindsay Talmud, "A provisional Palestine: road to nowhere" (January 2006)
- Yasser Abu Moailek, "A Palestinian choice" (January 2006)
- Eóin Murray, "After Hamas: a time for politics" (January 2006)

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But exposing the folly and ineffectiveness of US policy is one thing; ditching the commitment to political reform in the middle east is quite another. The international community needs to strengthen not weaken its commitment to accountable government and human rights in the region. In thinking about political change in the middle east – where the concept of a democratic culture is often very weak – international actors need to give as much emphasis to "constitutionalism" as to elections, important though elections are. In this context, constitutionalism means a balance of powers, including checks on the executive, a fair and independent legal process, a free press and media, and the protection of the rights of minorities.

It is important too for international actors to be realistic about what can be achieved in particular countries and over particular timescales. In some cases, support for political reform might involve pushing hard now for genuinely free elections. In other cases, a higher short-term priority for political reform might be encouraging an enlarged space in which opposition groups or civil society can function, greater freedom for the press, support for educational reforms and cultural exchanges, and promoting more inclusive economic development.

It is also vital to think more imaginatively about creating incentives for political reform in the middle east. There is a particular role for the European Union here. The experience of political change in other parts of the world suggests that countries can be persuaded to undertake very significant political and economic reforms if this is part of a process that yields real benefits to the ruling elite and the wider society. The way in which the prospect of EU membership has been used to bring about far-reaching change in eastern and central Europe is a good example of this. The process of Turkey's accession to the EU can be seen in a similar vein.

A critical question is whether such a process might be used more broadly to stimulate political reform across the middle east, through initiatives like the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The ENP will provide participating middle-eastern states with a stake in EU institutions, in particular the single market, providing a powerful incentive for reform. It also allows for the EU to reward countries that make faster progress against agreed benchmarks for political reform.

There are no simple answers to the current problems besetting the middle east. But the lesson to be drawn from the Hamas result is emphatically not that the international community should give up on the cause of political reform in the region. Rather it should become more serious and sophisticated about helping to support it.


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