When the Bush administration decided to make promoting democracy in the greater Middle East a major component of its post-Sept. 11 foreign policy, it soon discovered that it can be a rather tricky, not to mention risky, venture. Some might compare it to gambling; in both instances the odds are never in your favor, and there are no guarantees a winning hand will pay off.
As an example, for years the Bush administration had been pressing the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to hold "free and fair elections." Again, it is always worth mentioning that in politics, as in everything else for that matter, one needs to be careful what one wishes for.
Bush wanted free and fair elections for the Palestinians, the Moroccans and others in the region. And indeed, free and fair elections, strangely enough, did take place in several countries across North Africa and the Middle East. The trouble (for the majority of the West) is that in most cases the Islamist parties grabbed the majority of the vote, and one may add, with relative ease.
That was the case in the Palestinian territories where Hamas, the Islamist resistance movement, finished with a clear majority -- and found itself not only in government, but actually running the government, a task for which it was ill-prepared. And though it won fairly, it was much to the displeasure of both the Bush administration and the Israelis. Washington and Tel Aviv refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Hamas government and withheld funds allowing the government to function properly. Adhering to the democratic process was obviously not enough. It had to be a democratic process acceptable to the promoters of democracy.
Neither did Hamas help its cause when it threw away the book on democracy during several harrowing days of extreme violence resulting in Fatah, the party of Yasser Arafat, being forcefully expelled from the Gaza Strip.
An optimist might ask if the Bush administration might have drawn a lesson from the (mis)handling of the Hamas affair? But then not all Islamists are cut from the same cloth.
In a special report titled "Engaging Islamists and Promoting Democracy" published a couple of months ago by the U.S. Institute of Peace, special adviser to the Institute Mona Yacoubian reveals that, lo and behold, there has been direct contacts between the United States and the Islamists when the U.S. came to realize that it could not continue to ignore this growing phenomenon.
"Parliamentary elections across the Middle East have led to a wave of Islamist victories," writes Yacoubian. "Islamist parties typically boast leaders who are young and dynamic, with strong ties to the community. Their party organizations brim with energy and ideas, attracting those who seek change."
The USIP special report has singled out three countries in the region where the Islamists won in recent elections: Morocco, Jordan and Yemen. Despite appearances, the United States has decided to engage more of the moderate -- and legal -- Islamist in discreet dialogue.
Of the three countries examined in the study, Morocco demonstrated the most significant level of political development. The National Democratic Institute called it "one of the most compelling examples of democratic reforms in the Middle East and North Africa."
The study showed that when engaged by the United States, the Islamists were more likely to open up to change and transparency.
Says Yacoubian: "Continued engagement with moderate Islamists should be encouraged, albeit with greater emphasis on instruction building and an eye on the broader context of the ideological battle in the Muslim world between extremism and moderation."
As Yacoubian points out in the USIP report, "engaging the Islamists successfully through an engagement strategy both empowers individuals and strengthens institutions to yield greater transparency, more accountability and shifts toward moderation."
The trick is to want to play the game. (e-mail: Claude@metimes.com)