President George W. Bush’s second term in office witnessed a rise in democratically elected Islamist groups in the Middle East. In the 2005 Lebanese elections, Hezbollah won 10.9 percent of the parliamentary seats. Also in 2005, Muslim Brotherhood candidates, running as independents due to the group’s illegality, won 20 percent of seats in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, forming the largest opposition bloc. And in 2006, Hamas took 57.6 percent of the seats in the Palestinian parliamentary elections.
While President Bush chose to boycott these democratically elected Islamist groups, then presidential candidate Barack Obama offered no clear policy stance during the campaign. Thus, two important questions existed when Obama took the presidential oath on January 20, 2009. The first: Would the incoming president diverge from the Bush strategy and engage these groups? The second: Should he?
In his address to the Muslim world from Cairo University on June 4, he answered the first question with a conditioned affirmative. He stated: “America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people.” Obama’s insinuation that the United States would officially recognize the results of democratic elections won by Islamic parties and build relationships with their victors marked a significant change in United States policy from that of the Bush administration. But as a precursor to this potential engagement, Obama informed the world that these democratically elected groups must renounce violence as a political tool and maintain their commitment to democratic ideals.
The first of these groups, Hamas, won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament in 2006, forcing the Bush administration to make the crucial decision of whether it would validate the election results in the name of democracy or refute them in the name of the peace process. Despite its self-declared reputation as a champion of democratic ideals, the Bush administration quickly abandoned its principles and broke ties with the government. Hamas, designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State, has used “both political and violent means, including terrorism, to pursue the goal of establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in place of Israel.” If Hamas was the legitimate leader of the Palestinians, the Bush administration reasoned, hopes for a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement would vanish.
Although President Obama has for the most part emulated the policy of his predecessor, his speech in Cairo was an unprecedented invitation to Hamas to stop violence. He insists that the group must renounce terror, recognize Israel, and comply with past agreements before obtaining U.S. recognition, while asserting that the U.S. will not withhold recognition simply because Hamas’s policy and beliefs are not agreeable to the U.S.
Despite President Obama’s outreach in Cairo and the relatively positive response it received from Hamas authorities, Hamas has reasserted its commitment and its right to resist the Israeli occupation by any means, including violence. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum initially said: “We can take positive things from the speech to open communications with Obama and the U.S. administration,” demonstrating cooperation from a group eager to gain international recognition. Khaled Mashaal, the political bureau chairman of Hamas, added that Hamas is open to international efforts to catalyze the peace process, but the U.S. must be willing to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In contrast, he also reaffirmed Hamas’s “commitment to the resistance as a strategic option for the liberation of the nation and the restoration of the national legitimate rights,” suggesting that Hamas will cooperate only when it is convenient.
As a result, a consensus exists that President Obama is taking the right path in refusing to meet with Hamas until they denounce violence and recognize Israel. Some in the conservative policy community, however, believe President Obama is much too eager to convert Hamas because his eyes are on the ultimate goal: the peaceful coexistence of distinct Palestinian and Israeli states. His speech in Cairo portrays weakness, and he should take a firmer stance in confronting Hamas and other radical movements.
According to Lisa Curtis and James Phillips, senior research fellows at the conservative Washington think tank the Heritage Foundation, such willingness to extend a hand to Hamas may have a number of consequences. First, Obama “grossly understated the threat posed by Hamas to Israel and Palestinians themselves”. If Hamas has the opportunity to participate in a Palestinian state’s government, “[it] could pose a much more severe threat to Israel’s security if it reverts to terrorism and allies itself with Iran or other hostile powers.”
Secondly, Obama’s speech has implications for the long-standing strategic relationship between the United States and Israel. As a mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the U.S. has had to constantly walk a log, cautiously stepping as close to the middle as possible, while enduring accusations from both sides of its leaning toward the other. Israel is likely to perceive the speech in Cairo as “an attempt to appease Muslims at Israel’s expense” because Obama is putting more significant pressure on Israel than any U.S. president has in recent decades. Though this is unlikely to break the historic bonds between Israel and the U.S., it will undoubtedly strain them as Israel begins to feel that Obama is “giving short shrift to Israel's security needs and underplaying the threat of terrorism”.
Lastly, Curtis and Phillips warn that “by raising Muslim expectations of a rapid movement to a peace settlement that downplays Israel's security requirements and the threat of continued terrorism, the President may be creating the conditions for a dangerous backlash if these hopes are disappointed”. As the hopelessness brews, Palestinians will chafe under occupation as they have before and erupt into a third intifada.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, former President Carter has already met with Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip. Though he emphasized his visit was as a private citizen, not as a representative of the U.S. government, Carter sought to persuade Hamas to take the necessary steps to becoming an international player in the future, and he informed Hamas that upon his return, he would write a report on his observations in the region for the Obama administration. Most see this as a gullible and dangerous policy of appeasement to an organization which has not renounced its espousal of terrorism and has no intention of doing so. His visit gives Hamas reason to believe it won’t have to change its pernicious policies to gain international legitimacy and recognition.
President Obama has not yet been forced to deal directly with Hezbollah, another Islamic group which has acquired at least a portion of its power through the democratic process. Whether the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance’s defeat in the recent Lebanese parliamentary elections is due to Obama’s strategically timed address to the Muslim world—in which he appealed to moderate forces in the Middle East to take responsibility for their future—just three days beforehand or a result of a more permanent decline in support for Hezbollah, Obama was undoubtedly relieved when the results were released.
Hamas’s rise to power was one thing, which the U.S. has thus far chosen to ignore, but Hezbollah’s formation of a majority government in a well-established, U.S.-recognized democratic state would be catastrophic. Not only would it force Obama to accept, to a certain degree, a group devoted to the destruction of Israel, a U.S. strategic ally, but it would also give credibility to radical organizations throughout the Middle East, eclipsing the efforts of moderates and bringing the Arab-Israeli peace process to a standstill. Moreover, as David Schenker, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued prior to the elections, “a March 8 victory would buoy if not embolden Damascus and Tehran,” and would therefore “reduce the likelihood of achieving any practical results” in dealing with the one of the most acute threats to regional and international peace, Iranian nuclear proliferation.
In his speech at Cairo University, Obama also reached out to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose members comprise 20 percent of the Egyptian National Assembly, despite an official ban on the organization that forced them to run as independents. Several members of the Muslim Brotherhood were in attendance on June 4, when Obama reassured the Islamist political group that the U.S. would “welcome all elected, peaceful governments”. This is in contrast to the Bush administration, which curtailed its democracy promotion program after the Brotherhood’s recent gains, decreasing civil society funding from $50 million to $20 million in its last budget.
President Obama, however, will be unlikely to put his full weight behind democracy in Egypt as long as the current dichotomy in political thought within the Muslim Brotherhood persists. In Cairo, he was addressing the parliamentary bloc of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has followed the same democratic ideals Obama emphasized to assimilate into Egyptian political society. It gives preference to Egyptian interests over the goals of international resistance movements. It sees itself as a legitimate, peaceful player in Egyptian politics, and will be seen thus by the international community. But a distinct faction exists within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: the Office of the Supreme Guide, which echoes the cries of many radical, Middle Eastern organizations that are devoted to disrupting the peace process and espouse perpetual confrontation. "There are two agendas in the region one working to protect the resistance and advance its victory over the Zionist enemy, the other concerned only with placating the Americans and Zionists," explains the Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef. According to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Senior Associate Amr Hamzawy, this faction’s “logic of perpetual confrontation” irresponsibly sacrifices Egypt’s national security and sovereignty to support radical, sometimes violent movements beyond Egypt’s borders, such as Hezbollah.
Obama hoped his speech in Cairo would push the radical, non-Parliamentary element of the Muslim Brotherhood toward the moderate, responsible parliamentary bloc, but by engaging the Muslim Brotherhood, he risks empowering an Islamist group which has not yet clarified its position on a number of critical issues. Policy experts such as Hamzawy wonder: will it honor past treaties, such as the 1979 Camp David Accords, as it consolidates political support? Will it tolerate political dissent, respect minorities and women, and uphold the rule of law? The speech in Cairo, however, was just a first step. If the Muslim Brotherhood wants the U.S. to extend further rhetorical support, undermining its relationship with Egypt’s authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak, it must demonstrate that it supports Obama’s goal of international stability and reflects his democratic ideals.
In Cairo, Obama pragmatically extended his hand to democratically elected Islamist organizations in the Middle East, conditioning further engagement on non-violence and democratic ideals. By doing so, he has delegitimized the common excuse that the United States rejects Islamist groups solely because of an ant-Muslim sentiment and has minimized the chances of empowering these groups until they pose less of a threat to the Middle East and to the United States.