January 27, 2006

Hamas win sets precedent for Arab democracy

By Nadim Ladki

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hamas's stunning Palestinian election
victory this week signals that democratic change is possible in
the Arab world, even if the United States might not be pleased
with the outcome of an idea it has championed.

The Islamist movement is poised to form the next
Palestinian government after winning 76 seats in the 132-member
parliament to end Fatah's 40 years of political dominance in an
electoral power shift that has no precedent in modern Arab

"It is truly the first peaceful change of power of such
fundamental proportions in our Arab history," columnist Joseph
Samaha wrote in Lebanon's as-Safir newspaper. "We will live
with this decisive milestone for years to come."

U.S. President George W. Bush has urged the Arab world to
embrace democracy, even though free elections might well
empower Islamists fiercely opposed to Washington's policies in
the region, including its support for pro-Western Arab

Islamist parties have sometimes done well at the polls in
Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Algeria, but only in Iraq have they
taken power -- and there only after a U.S.-led invasion toppled
the Sunni-dominated rule of Saddam Hussein and organized
elections won by factions representing the Shi'ite majority.

Abdul Majeed Thunaibat, head of Jordan's Muslim
Brotherhood, the country's largest party, said the Palestinian
elections were proved that given a free choice Arabs would pick
Islamists, not nationalist and leftist parties he blamed for
Arab defeats.

"The choice of the Palestinian people has come to reflect
this will for change ... in the Arab world," Thunaibat said.


Even Hamas was surprised by the scale of its victory over
Fatah, the secular nationalist faction founded by Yasser Arafat
with a name that was long synonymous with the Palestinian

"When we took part in the elections we honestly expected to
win but we did not expect to win by so much," said Osama
Hamdan, Hamas's representative in Lebanon, adding that the
margin of victory put a heavy responsibility in his group's

An Islamist party scored a similar triumph in the first
round of an election in Algeria in 1991, but a
military-inspired coup blocked its route to power, plunging the
country into a civil war which claimed tens of thousands of

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, ideologically close to Hamas,
won about a fifth of seats in parliament to emerge clearly as
the main opposition to President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party,
despite what Islamists say were unfair government tactics.

"If there had not been fraud, repression and undemocratic
practices, the Muslim Brotherhood would have gained more than
90 percent of the seats they contested," Thunaibat said.

Hamas, popular for its fight against Israel, as well as its
charity work and its clean image compared to Fatah, must now
decide whether to moderate its stance once it is in power.

Israel, the United States and the European Union classify
it as a terrorist organization. The West says it must disarm
and recognize Israel if it wants to avoid international

Hamas's dilemma is more acute than that of another
vote-winning Islamist group, Shi'ite Muslim Hizbollah, which
has been in Lebanon's parliament since 1992. Its representation
is restricted by the country's sectarian political system.

Anti-Israeli Hizbollah is also under pressure to disarm in
line with a 2004 U.N. resolution. It has called for dialogue on
the issue with Lebanon's multitude of factions, while insisting
its military wing is the best option to keep Israel at bay.

With its Shi'ite allies, it swept elections in Shi'ite
areas last year to form a bloc of 35 deputies in the 128-seat

Backed by Syria and Iran, Hizbollah chose not to join the
Lebanese government until after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005.

It now has two ministers serving in the 24-member cabinet,
an engagement in government that may herald a broader
transition from guerrilla group to political party.

Hamas now faces similar, but more urgent pressures.

"It is being said that Hamas has imposed new realities on
the world, but the truth is that the Palestinians did that and
more importantly they imposed new realities on Hamas,"
columnist Sahar Baasiri wrote in Lebanon's leading newspaper

Hamas's choice to run in the election had given it a new
legitimacy. "That will force it to change," she argued.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman)