Ballots Trump Radical Islam
Two of President Bush's goals in the Middle East - an end to violent Islam and a rise in democracy - used to require separate paths. Now in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories, an ounce of democracy is providing a pound of cure to terrorist tendencies.
Sunday, Hizbullah guerrillas who used to rain rockets down on Israeli civilians led supporters to the polls in a revived Lebanese democracy newly free of Syrian troops. Hizbullah's Shiite leaders are under pressure from this electoral momentum to focus on domestic issues and disband their militia, rather than continue to wear a mantle of armed "resistance" against Israel.
In Iraq, too, Sunni leaders who have backed the insurgents are starting to support the newly elected government. In Egypt, meanwhile, the Middle East's historic model of an Islamic political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been caught off guard with recent antigovernment street demonstrations for democracy. Last year, the popular Brotherhood had to shift its stance from the view that God is the sole source of authority in human affairs to one regarding the people as the source of sovereignty.
Democracy doesn't always have the ability, however, to reduce the self- proclaimed legitimacy of Islam's holy leaders over daily life. In Iran, Muslim clerics have tightened their hold on the country's limited electoral system, such as controlling the slate of candidates for next month's presidential election.
Perhaps the region's most compelling clash of radical Islam and democracy is in the coming legislative elections for the Palestinian Authority. It appears the most popular party is the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which was also the leading group sending suicide bombers into Israel until a cease-fire on Feb. 8.
Mr. Bush wants Hamas's terror network dismantled and doesn't believe Palestinians would give it a victory at the polls. But he's worried. Last week, he gave $50 million to the secular president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. That will help boost his rule and thus the election chances of the Fatah movement, which was founded by the late Yasser Arafat but is increasingly unpopular.
With elections now reset for this fall - after the planned Israeli pullout from Gaza - Hamas might be able to win even more votes by claiming its attacks forced the withdrawal. That perception would reinforce its militancy and, if it controls the PA legislature, make an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal even more difficult.
Bush's dual vision for the Middle East depends to a large degree on whether Palestinian voters reject Hamas, or perchance, Hamas is so smitten by democracy that it declares a permanent end to attacks on civilians and seeks peace with Israel.