Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Fine-Tuning Democracy: Too Much Power… too Little Power

    Wednesday, May 02, 2007   No comments

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2007

By A. E. SOUAIAIA* (12/2006)

As the current US administration prepares to make a significant strategic shift in Iraq to stop the deterioration of the military, economic, political, and social conditions therein, it is helpful to consider the situation in other Middle Eastern countries to see the root causes of the US failure to bring positive change in Iraq and in the region. In my view, the civil war in Iraq (and possibly in Palestine and Lebanon) is primarily due to the manipulation of the political process to pre-determine the outcome on the expense of the democratic principles. There is no “way forward” anywhere without trying to reverse the damage. There must be a full stop first, admission of responsibility second, and restarting the process the right way third; and the right way entails respecting the will of the people regardless of who comes to power. For the sake of the long term stability of the world, not just the region, the West must also initiate, encourage, and preserve true separation of governance powers in the Arab world at all cost.

Although the true impact of wrong strategy to seed democracy in the region are now becoming apparent, the root causes behind the current condition can be found in the numerous contradictions and missteps advocated by the West and implemented on the ground militarily or as a matter of policy through unilateral actions in the form of sanctions and embargos. In order to highlight some of these contradictions, I will briefly review the very recent developments in the region.

It must be recalled that when Ariel Sharon came to power, he froze all communication with the Palestinian authority then led by Yasir Arafat. In remarks on the eve of a visit to Washington (October 15, 2002), he demanded that the Palestinians change the “murderous regime” before any peace talk take place. He argued that Arafat is unelected yet he has too much power. After 30 months of stalled progress in reaching a peace deal, and bowing to US and Western pressure, Arafat agreed to cede most of his power by agreeing to the creation of the office of the Prime Minister and he appointed Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazin) to the post. Abbas was given the right to form a cabinet and supervise ministers, the sole preserve of Arafat until that date (March 2003). However, despite this change, Sharon refused to engage the Palestinians on account that Arafat retained control over the security forces and the final say over peace talks.

Fast forward to 2005: with Arafat dead, Abbas elected President, Fatah controlling the Palestinian parliament and government (the Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia, is also a Fatah chief); Sharon continued to refuse to deal with Abbas on account that the latter failed to reign in Hamas and other “terrorists.” Abbas knew that he cannot control Hamas but if Hamas joins the Palestinian authority, he thought, it will be bound by the decisions of any body in which it is represented. After months of negotiation, he managed to convince Hamas to participate in the general election. On Wednesday January 25 2006, Hamas did participate and captured 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats in a certifiably free and fair election. Fatah barely won 44 and the rest of the seats went to independent candidates and representatives of other factions. Abbas and many other observers thought and hoped that the results will be the reverse of the final ones: Hamas winning some forty seats and Fatah winning a majority. Had this wishful thinking materialized, Hamas would have been politically dwarfed and thus controlled. But that was the theory; the reality is what we now know. Nonetheless, and in the light of these impressive results, Abbas had no legal option but to ask the majority party to nominate a Prime Minster. Initially, Hamas attempted to form a unity government but when negotiations failed and the process dragged for too long, Ismail Hanya (then Prime Minister-Designate) moved to create a Hamas-run government.

As soon as such government was formed and approved by Abbas, the US and its Western allies moved quickly to impose a dubious financial and economic embargo on the Palestinians. It would appear that the purpose of the embargo was to weaken the government to the point that it will force it to collapse or overthrown by hungry Palestinians. Almost a year later, none of that has happened and recently, it appears that Hamas was successful in securing funds from some Arab and Muslim countries to help it overcome the Western freeze of aid and Israel’s refusal to transfer tax revenues. At this juncture (December 16, 2006), Abbas called for early presidential and general election and gunmen from Hamas and Fatah rushed to the streets shooting at each other: Fatah security personal supporting the Abbas’ declaration and Hamas’ Executive Force resisting what they called a “coup d’etat” against the legitimate government.

Even if we assume that Abbas’ decision is legal, there are no guarantees that Hamas will not win again if another election were to take place in three to six months. In fact according to a poll conducted by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Haniya and Abbas are in a dead heat in a presidential race while Fatah leads 42-to-36. These numbers are not that different from the same poll numbers of the survey that was conducted before the first elections. Furthermore, there are no indications that Hamas has lost any support among its supporters and it is likely that it will retain a decisive number of seats that will allow it to block any decisions taken by a government that is formed without it.

These events are more troubling for the West and especially for this US administration which has made the spread of democracy its principal goal after the collapse of security threat pretext for war (dealing with Iraq’s possession of WMDs). After years of trying to reign in the power of one-man rule, the paradigm of choice in all Arab countries, it is now pressing for more power to Abbas:

Since Hamas won legislative elections in the spring, Abbas has been encouraged by foreign diplomats – led by the US - to strengthen the power of the presidency to counter Hamas. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, recently said she would ask Congress for tens of millions of dollars to strengthen Abbas’s security forces. (See The Observer; Sunday December 17, 2006).

The Western support of one faction against another is not theoretical, according to the New York Times, the US and its allies are in fact providing direct military support to Fatah: “After coordination with Israel and the United States, Egypt has sent weapons and ammunition into the Gaza Strip to forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, Israeli officials said Thursday.” (See New York Times, December 28, 2006).

The US administration is steadfast in its support for Abbas and so is Tony Blair who visited Abbas on December 18. Blair praised Abbas’ call for early presidential and legislative elections and promised him his full support. The other option they offered Hamas is to relinquish its right to govern (which it earned just a year ago) and establish a unity government with Fatah. This may sound reasonable, but when one considers the Western position regarding a similar demand for a unity government in Lebanon, then Western hypocrisy and double standards become obvious. Regarding the Lebanese’s opposition demand for unity government or early elections, the West and the current Lebanese government argue that it is a coup against the democratic government. When considering the Lebanese “fine-tuned” election laws in effect since before the civil war, to claim that a government based on such laws is representative of the will of the majority of the people becomes highly doubtful.

The Western unprincipled meddling in the politics of the region is exactly the type of short-sighted measures that are the cause of many problems in the Muslim world. It has been the practice of US administrations to support the so-called “moderate” leaders and encourage them to consolidate power. Then when these men die or are removed through social uprising or military coups, the new regime (which may not be as friendly and as moderate) inherits considerable power that could be (and was) used to the detriment of national and international peace and stability.

Let’s assume for a minute that this plan of ‘supporting moderates” works in the short run and that the US is successful in giving more institutional power to the Palestinian President. In a true democratic system, it is likely that Hamas could win again (not necessarily in the next election but some day); and it could win not only the majority of the parliamentary seats, but also the presidency. If this scenario were to materialize, what other “great idea” should this administration suggest to solve this conundrum?


Ironically, the problems of the Palestinian authority are not different from those in Iraq. In fact, the common denominator is the tweaking of the election laws to predetermine the outcome in advance in order to please certain groups or ascertain that other groups don’t have too much power. To be sure, the laws that governed the elections in Iraq since the fall of Saddam were written down under the US supervision as the occupying force. The rules for elections and the rules of applying the results of such elections to appoint the president, vice-presidents, and prime minister are all done in a way that will lead to the sharing of power among all the ethnic and religious groups of Iraq (mainly Kurds, Arab Sunnis, and Shi`ites). In creating this formula, the office of the Prime Minister, the chief executive of the country, became dependent on the support of the various groups represented in the parliament. In other words, a prime minister answers to the parliamentarians who nominated him and who happen to be, at this point, divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. As such, neither the president nor the prime minister has actual power because their power is bestowed by another entity (the parliament). It will be more effective if true separation of powers was implemented instead of this attempt to please all on the expense of the security and safety of civilians who are dying by the hundreds every day. Iraq’s stability would have been better served by an elected president who answers to voters who elect him directly and under the oversight of a sovereign parliament whose members are also elected directly by the voters. A strong President, a sovereign Parliament, and a human rights-centered Constitution are the only way to save Iraq from disintegration if at all preventable at this point. By emphasizing the protection of human rights as universal principles, a president will work to protect the citizens or risk being tried for crimes against humanity that he allowed or failed to prevent.

Democracy does not work well when one man or one political party is in charge of all branches of government. More importantly, this fine-tuning of democracy to produce exactly the result we want is political “fraud.” The US and the West need to respect the will of the people and work on accepting the results of free and transparent election processes regardless of who the winners are. In the end, doing so will increase the political and moral capitals that this US administration has lost in Abu Graib and Guantanamo; and it will also place the West on the side of the people not on the side of rulers who come and go, one way or another. It is in the interest of peace in the long run that Islamist groups, such as Hamas, are brought into the political system; to prevent them is to strengthen the school of thought that relies on bullets instead of ballets for political participation.
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A. E. SOUAIAIA is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Iowa.

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