Analysis: Will Hamas turn moderate?

Though democratic, the elections were the first in the Arab world to vote in an Islamist government.

hamas rally hebron 298.8 (photo credit: AP)
hamas rally hebron 298.8
(photo credit: AP)
It was probably the most democratic elections to take place in the Arab world. But it was also the first to elect an Islamist government - thereby disappointing many abroad who have been waving the flag of democracy in this direction and leaving open the question how will so much power affect the Islamists. Democratically, Wednesday's elections were a great success. The Palestinian people freely and in an orderly manner chose who they wanted to run their government. "This could not have happened in Syria or Egypt," said Salam Handoli, a local hotel manager. Indeed, people waited patiently in line as their ID cards were examined and re-examined. Observers from each of the parties made sure the ballots were counted honestly. And the Palestinian government, which has been run by the Fatah party for 12 years, watched and waited and did not interfere. On the contrary, it ensured that the elections would be kosher. Now for the first time Arab Islamists will have to match their ideology with their life practice. Only one precedent of an Islamist government winning democratically exists: in Turkey. After being overthrown time and again by the fiercely secular military, an Islamist government eventually came to power and shocked everyone. Instead of turning the country more conservative, Islamic, and isolated, the Islamist government in Ankara has made every effort possible to satisfy the European Union so that Turkey would be accepted as a member. "The question that needs to be asked is if Hamas will act as the Islamists in Turkey and change their agenda to adapt to the people's agenda," remarked Dr. Yoram Meital, Chair of the Middle East Studies Department at Ben-Gurion University. "I think there is a big chance that a large and important part of Hamas will show more pragmatism," said Meital, adding that the militant elements of Hamas will insist on continuing the war against Israel, and end up breaking off from Hamas and joining the Islamic Jihad - which refuses to participate in the elections or in any negotiations. "Hamas will want to show the Palestinian public that they are not fanatics and can be moderate." This is the first time an Arab Islamist party is being challenged with leading and solving the problems of its people. In most Arab countries the Islamists are forced to be in the opposition while the secular despots remain in power with the blessing of the West, which fears a result like this one. That side-lining gives the Islamists power and popularity. They talk through mosque loudspeakers to a great number of people but are never held accountable. They never have to deal with the challenges of limited budgets, poor health systems, high unemployment, and sinking economies. Only in Algeria did the people come close to voting in an Islamist government. In 1991 in multi-phase national elections the Islamist party won by a landslide in the first few regions that voted. It appeared clear that they would continue to win in the rest of the country. But then the regime and the military, apparently with French and US backing, stopped the elections and a civil war began which continues till today. Some 100,000 people have died. The Arab world will now be watching the Palestinian nation with close scrutiny. Some Islamists wish that Hamas will continue its terror war on Israel. Surely some Arab dictatorships will wish the same so that they can continue to receive the support of the West which fears the alternative. But others hope that the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) will clear its name from terrorism, exchange bombing for talking, and show that a religious Muslim government does not necessarily mean forcing religion on people, nor does it mean using violence as a means to get justice. Hamas leaders have told The Jerusalem Post they won't force religion on anyone. They have also said they will do what is necessary to achieve stability. They know that their attacks bring Israeli counter-attacks. The question remains how much will they be willing to compromise on their beliefs in order to achieve stability.