January 27, 2006Foreign Affairs

A lesson from the Hamas victory

A Hamas moment in Pakistan can make India’s nightmare worse

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Everyone is stunned by the results of the Palestinian elections, writes the BBCs’ Jeremy Bowen. Hamas won, he writes, because they were seen as honest and efficient and Fatah were not’. Hamas, according to the New York Times is an organization that revels in terrorism and is sworn to destroy Israel’. Yet it is also one which was overwhelmingly voted into power by the Palestinian people. The Israeli government has already ruled out talks with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, but it finds itself on thin ground refusing to negotiate with Hamas now, because in addition to being a terrorist organisation, it is also a popularly elected government’.

Ironically, it was to prevent this very outcome that the United States and Israel decided to engage the late Yasser Arafat. Arafat was one man, it was believed, who was the only chance they had to prevent the Palestinian territories from falling into the hands of the most radical, most hardline and most violent of Palestinian political formations. But Arafat used his position as president of the Palestinian Authority to dispense favours and privilege. While he and his cronies siphoned and squandered away the development funds, the resolute and committed cadres of Hamas occupied the vacuum left by Arafat’s failure to shape any real institutions. While he was still alive, Arafat was unable or unwilling to check Hamas’ rise. With his exit, Hamas’ rise was guaranteed almost by default. Israel’s jailing of Marwan Barghouti, one other figure who could fill Arafat’s shoes, didn’t help.

After declaring the spread of democracy as the cornerstone of its Middle East policy, the United States cannot now reject the results of the Palestinian elections. They may have to do so holding their noses, but both Israel and the United States must deal with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. It is not unusual for radicals to turn moderate when they find themselves holding the reins of power. But Hamas could well buck this trend. (Read the Armed Liberal and Colt at Winds of Change)

There’s a lesson in this for both India and the United States. Both believe that Gen Musharraf, like Yasser Arafat, is a bulwark against something much worse. Yet, it is under his rule that the Islamists find themselves stronger than ever before. The whole of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is under the sway of the Pakistani version of Hamas, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. The non-religious political opposition finds itself in the wilderness, emasculated as it is by Gen Musharraf. When he leaves the scene, the dominant political actors, apart from the army, will be the Islamists. Among those will remain standing, only the army and the Islamists have strong commitments to keeping the Pakistani federation from falling apart, making them natural allies. They may even come to power in free and fair elections, if the people they run against are the likes of Shaukat Aziz and Chaudhury Shujaat Hussain, the Pakistani equivalent of Fatah.

Hamas’ victory is a reminder that the only thing to negotiate with Musharraf about is Pakistan’s progress towards democracy. Contrary to popular characterisation, Musharraf does not stand in the way of Islamists seizing power. He stands in the way of democracy from taking root. It may already be too late to prevent a Hamas moment from happening in Pakistan in the near future. But unless India and the United States change their stance vis-a-vis Musharraf now, that outcome will prove to be just as surprising as the one in Gaza. The difference is that India will have to contend with a nuclear Hamas.

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