Experts debate Mideast policy

By RACHEL OSWALD  |  Nov. 11, 2005 at 11:57 AM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- The Bush administration's push for greater political freedom in the Middle East may have the unintended consequence of promoting radical Islamist parties, and experts are divided over whether this is desirable.

"As democracy grows it will be built on anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, we have to live with it and not be overwhelmed by it," said Reuel Gerecht, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute at a recent event in Washington at the Nixon Center.

The comments follow the Bush administration's decision not to oppose the participation of Hamas, which is on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, in legislative elections scheduled for January. Hamas enjoys considerable popularity in the West Bank and Gaza strip but a recent poll by Bir Zeit University showed Fatah has an edge on Hamas in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

"How the Palestinian political process unfolds and evolves is a question for the Palestinian people," said State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack.

Washington has also been tight-lipped about Hezbollah's role in Lebanese politics, only saying the Shiite militant group, also on the terror list, should disarm. In Lebanon, Hezbollah went from eight to 23 seats in the 2005 Lebanese parliamentary elections. The group also is part of the July 2005 government.

Daniel Pipes, director of the conservative Middle East Forum, agreed with Gerecht that Islamist groups were gaining popularity in the Middle East, but argued the United States should slow down the democratic process so as to not allow Islamist governments to come to power.

"Yes democracy, but not democracy now, democracy eventually, it is a slow and complex process, taking centuries to evolve," said Pipes.

Pipes said opening up the democratic process in the Middle East will "enfranchise the enemy" if the process results in Islamist governments coming to power, an event that both Pipes and Gerecht agreed was likely.

"You don't get Thomas Jefferson without Martin Luther. You have to expect trauma," said Gerecht.

An example of such trauma is the bloody civil war that erupted in Algeria in 1992 when the army denied power to the Islamic Salvation Front by suspending the results of the country's first democratic elections, which the FIS had expected to win. The civil war claimed over 100,000 lives.

Pipes said there were four characteristics of Islamism: A devotion to implementing the shariah, or Islamic law, in its totality over all aspects of human life; the transformation of a personal faith into a radical utopian ideology; the rejection of Western influence; and a drive to power.

"Ten to 15 percent of all Muslims today are actively Islamist, but their presence is bigger," said Pipes, "being honest and hardworking has won the Islamists support because the other parties have discredited themselves."

Pipes continued, "Anti-Islamist Muslims are weak, fractured and inarticulate."

Pipes favored giving leaders in the Middle East a lengthy timetable in which to slowly introduce democratic reforms saying, "I would rather see today's dictators in power than Islamic dictators."

Gerecht disagreed, citing Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak as an example of the corrupt leadership that is leading more Muslims to favor Islamist alternatives.

"We need to be more aggressive with Egypt, Egypt is the linchpin," said Gerecht, suggesting the United States give Mubarak three years to open up the democratic process.

Gerecht said the September presidential elections in Egypt were "falsely jury-rigged."

Pipes also said he opposed the political process in Iraq that the Bush administration says is a cornerstone of its policy to spread freedom in the region.

"I was dismayed that the interval between the fall of Saddam and the election for prime minister was only 22 months, I would have liked 22 years," said Pipes, adding: "Elections should begin at the municipal level, not the legislative."

Gerecht, however, argued such a timetable was unrealistic.

"Democracy in the Middle East is gong to be front loaded, elections first, then institutions."

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