Bronson: Hamas Victory ‘A True Setback’ for Bush Administration’s Democracy Campaign

Bronson: Hamas Victory ‘A True Setback’ for Bush Administration’s Democracy Campaign

January 30, 2006 4:17 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Rachel Bronson, who heads CFR’s Middle East and Gulf Studies program, says the Bush administration’s expectations that as a Middle East country “democratizes” it would move away from terrorism seem to have backfired with the outright victory of Hamas in the parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories.

“Here we have in Palestine a case where a terrorist organization has won without first moderating and everyone is confronted with incredibly difficult choices about how to move forward,” says Bronson, also a Senior Fellow at CFR.

“I think this is a true setback for the Bush administration, and I think they know it,” she says.

As to what to do about the situation, she counsels working with the Europeans, who are major aid donors to the Palestinians, and judging the new situation in the Palestinian territories by what Hamas actually does.

She was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on January 30, 2006.

In the aftermath of the surprising victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, there’s been considerable discussion about the Bush administration’s policy of fostering democracy in the Middle East. Of course when you advocate democracy and free elections you have to run the risk that the people you favor don’t win. How would you evaluate this administration’s policy? Is it a disaster, as critics say, or are the Palestinian elections just part of “democracy?"

Well, I think in the Middle East last week, the rubber certainly hit the road; the tensions in the Bush administration policy between democratization and counterterrorism were exposed. There’s been the hope in the Bush administration that as a country goes through the process of democratization it would move away from terror. Here we have in Palestine a case where a terrorist organization has won without first moderating and everyone is confronted with incredibly difficult choices about how to move forward.

I think this is a true setback for the Bush administration and I think they know it. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is reportedly shocked and surprised by the outcome and wants some sort of accounting about how they got it so wrong. This definitely was not good news for the Bush administration. It was a step back. Democratization hasn’t so far worked, certainly in Palestine as the administration would have hoped. The hope was that as countries enter into the process, they become more moderate. Now we have to see if a party like Hamas, once it is into the process and in fact chosen to run the process over time it will become more moderate or not.

Well, of course these elections preceded the Bush administration in a sense that the Palestinians had a parliamentary election in 1996; so it’s not a brand new thing for them. The new element is the fact that Hamas decided on its own to run, whereas it boycotted the 1996 elections.

There was an opportunity for the Bush administration, when the elections were first scheduled for about six months ago and they were delayed because Abu Mazen (President Mahmoud Abbas) felt that he and Fatah didn’t have the momentum going into the election. Abu Mazen let time pass and didn’t fortify his position or the position of Fatah, the ruling party. The Bush administration really wasn’t paying attention at the time either and didn’t think through how to help fortify him or decrease support for Hamas. They were focused on Iraq and Iran and other issues. But there were moments of opportunity to galvanize the international community to present a unified message that parties that do not recognize their neighbor and do not renounce terrorism will not be engaged by the international community. That would have set the choices very starkly for the Palestinian people. They may still have voted the same way, but the statements that are coming out now from major European leaders like Italy, Germany, are somewhat late. These are things that could have been organized earlier.

I just want to skip a little bit around the Middle East; there were elections in Egypt this year for the parliament and for the presidency and in both cases it was carefully managed by ruling secular party—[Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak’s party—although the Muslim Brotherhood’s independent candidates did surprisingly well. What about in other Arab countries? What do you find, including in Saudi Arabia, which is your specialty?

I think the clear message is that elections do not make a democracy. They are the last step in a democratization process. What’s happening now is that we’re starting to get this cascade of elections to show that the region’s democratizing. But, as we saw in Egypt, a government can actually increase its power while presenting a façade of sharing power.   Mubarak still retains absolute power; he’s incredibly strong.  In Egypt’s elections, it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood gained parliamentary seats, but I don’t think anyone should feel comfortable about the state of democracy in Egypt.

If you look at Saudi Arabia and you look at the Gulf, it’s actually more interesting what’s happening in countries there. Increased participation is happening at a much lower level, very slowly, certainly not making headlines, but it’s probably a more interesting and true sense of increasing participation. Saudi Arabia is an example. Since Crown Prince Abdullah became King, even before, we saw the municipal elections where many Shiites won in the eastern province, in Qatif for example…

That’s an oil-producing province?

Yes. And elsewhere, Sunni Islamists won strong representation. These weren’t candidates that the government necessarily wanted to win. The government has taken its time convening the municipal councils, but the victories were unexpected and important.  Also important, and more exciting for the US and reformers in the Kingdom, is that women ran for and won position on the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. Women have now run for other positions as well, like key posts in engineering societies, and they will now run for and may win positions in Dammam’s chamber of commerce, also in the eastern province, where the oil is.

Can women vote in Saudi Arabia?

In the most recent municipal elections, they could not vote, but they have been voting in these other elections like the chamber of commerce and the engineering society. This is nowhere near the earthquake we’ve seen in Palestine, nor is it as headline-making as in Egypt, but they’re slow and steady and they’re probably more important because they penetrate more deeply. Saudi Arabia still is a monarchy and those rights can be taken away tomorrow and everyone knows it. That being said, I think it’s more in line with what the Bush administration wants in terms of democratization than what we’ve seen in Palestine.

What about a country like Kuwait, which just had a rather remarkable change in government? I’m not sure of all the details, but I gather the leader who was supposed to be the new emir was incapacitated and the parliament voted him out of office.

That’s right. Crown Prince Sa’ad had been incapacitated for a number of years and there was speculation of advanced Alzheimer’s; according to precedent and protocol, he was to become the next emir after Emir Jaber al-Sabbah died. Everyone knew Sheikh Sa’ad couldn’t effectively govern. Parliament advocated that prime minister Sabbah, who was effectively in charge of day-to-day operations in the kingdom become the new emir. He was from the same branch of the family as the emir, Sheikh Jaber.  

Based on the rules of the constitution, parliament exerted itself and ultimately acted to remove Sa’ad. What’s enormously exciting and what people have to be proud of in Kuwait is ultimately it came down to the constitution and the parliament voting for the constitution to be upheld. Kuwait has had a much longer history of a strong parliament than the rest of the gulf but it’s sort of fallen by the wayside as they’ve had these very sick elders running the country. But at this moment of crisis the parliament relied on the constitution and deposed a sitting emir. In terms of rule of law and parliament, the Kuwaiti people should be enormously proud.

Of course, Lebanon’s had elections forever, based on apportioning seats by groupings. Let’s go back to Palestine again. If you were asked by Condi Rice for your advice on the aid questions, how would you decide that? Congress has voted that the United States can’t give aid to a terrorist country, and Hamas is on the terrorist list, so it’s unclear at what point that law kicks in I guess.

I think one of the reasons Bush called for Mahmoud Abbas to continue in his role as chairman of the Palestinian Authority was to buy time and provide an out if the U.S. or others want to continue aid. They can say the money was going to Mahmoud Abbas and not necessarily Hamas. It’s a fine line. I think at the moment the administration is  pursuing the right line, which is to set conditions about how the United States will engage with the Palestinian Authority, which is they have to renounce violence and acknowledge Israel’s existence.

It will become increasingly important to judge Hamas by its actions. Rice is correct to invest time, now, while she is in London, to build a consensus among the Europeans, about how to proceed. Hamas is clearly nervous about a total denial of aid and is acknowledging that they are worried about it, so this is a very useful time to be united with Europe and to be pursuing a somewhat hard-line.

What’s hard for us is that no one here and no one in Hamas itself expected that victory by such a large majority and I don’t know how many people know who will actually end up being the head of the government. There’s been speculation by your colleague, Henry Siegman, among others, that perhaps Hamas might pick an independent to lead the government who would obviously be sympathetic to Hamas. What do you think?

I think that might be the way they go on key posts, such as minister of finance and prime minister. There are independents who won who had long been associated with Fatah but changed their affiliation to independent and were eventually backed by Hamas. They may serve as useful compromise candidates. I believe that Hamas not only faces a challenge of how to proceed vis-à-vis Israel, but how to tackle the myriad of enormous challenges that Fatah faced.

The treasury is bankrupt.  What are they going to do with their security services? They have control over their own people, but the security services are made up mostly of Fatah supporters; how in the world are they going to reconcile them and organize them? What are they going to do with the Al-Asqa Martyrs’ Brigade? What are they going to do with Islamic Jihad, which they have no control over? In my view, the most likely scenario for violence in coming weeks is not that Hamas launches attacks against Israel. In some ways it’s in their interest to keep things quiet until they get their own house in order, but Islamic Jihad has no reason to stay quiet unless Iran is telling them to stay quiet.

Iran now becomes a major player in what’s going on. If Islamic Jihad launches some sort of attack, which is  easy to imagine, Israel will certainly respond, especially given [acting Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert’s position going into a March election. He has to show that he’s tough on terror—and Hamas will most likely have to respond. In terms of the challenges Hamas faces, how it is going to manage their own internal security, I think, is the most daunting challenge.

I guess the assumption has been that Hamas, being so organized, will be able to organize all this.

They’re not going to be able to. I mean there are such deep rivalries. They can organize social services, but even then, their social services at the moment reaches out to 10 percent of the population. Of that 10 percent they reach, they do an excellent job but it’s still very small. They haven’t been in a position of power.

And this is largely in Gaza?

Yes. They’re also present in the West Bank, as we’ve seen in some crushing defeats in the recent election, but their real strength comes out of Gaza. So even in social service which they do well, they now have to take over a much larger body, which is this dysfunctional Palestinian Authority, which is stocked with Fatah. There’re deep, deep challenges that they’re going to have to resolve and it would be very useful to have the Egyptians and the Jordanians and the Europeans talking through with them how they are going to manage this. It’s so difficult to see how this ends well.

More on:

Elections and Voting

Palestinian Territories


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