The voice of the people

When working in strange lands, it's always nice to make friends. And when life gets difficult, it's good to know that our friends share our interests.

Life has become very difficult indeed for Westerners promoting democratic values in the Middle East, and, unfortunately, we seem to have chosen our friends unwisely. Many of them have not enough enthusiasm for democracy and too much for clamping down on those who do.


The strongest supporters of democracy in the Middle East are (not surprisingly) those who have the most to gain from it, and in recent years - and for the foreseeable future - these are and will be groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. This is uncomfortable; they are not our friends, nor, for most of us, are they the kinds of people we'd like to have as friends. But the vital point is that huge numbers voting for them are. These numbers represent the people, and, as Abraham Lincoln said, we know it's government of the people, by the people and for the people that works best.

The people who have recently handed these groups major electoral victories and who continue to mobilize in their support are not extremists, terrorists or, as President Bush would have us believe, "fascists." They turn out to be ordinary people who want their governments to adhere to basic standards of competence and ethical governance. Just like us.


When working toward democracy - the rule of the people - it makes a lot of sense to find out what the people want. It makes no sense, once the people have indicated what they want at the ballot box, to engage in a systematic campaign to nullify or reverse that decision. But the Palestinians have every reason for believing we have done precisely that. It is what supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood can legitimately believe, too, as Western aid continues to shore up President Hosni Mubarak's police state. And, unless we do something about it very soon, we are going to suffer an unpleasant case of self-fulfilling prophecy in which our potential friends, in their millions, turn decisively and dangerously against us. In the Middle East, Western democrats are on the verge of making an enemy of the people.

Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood have all participated, sometimes tentatively and with reservations, in democratic politics. In 2006, all three movements and their supporters had good reason to believe that this was the right thing to do. The results spoke for themselves. For the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Egypt, and for the entire region, this was good news. Powerful players capable of perpetuating violence and political instability had chosen to come in from the cold. By engaging in the politics of constant compromise that characterizes democracy, they would increasingly see the downside of pure ideology and intransigent postures. Change could be achieved by negotiation rather than bloodshed.

However, within the leadership of these movements, and among the rank and file, there was some hesitation about this entry into pluralist politics. Skeptics wanted to wait and see whether participation would reap dividends. For the Muslim Brotherhood, electoral success has triggered a sequence of sustained persecution, the arrests of leading figures, and a renewed determination on the part of the state to deny the party legal status. For Hamas, success has brought with it a sustained campaign by the West to isolate and undermine the new government, and to encourage the losing party, Fatah, to wage political and military war against it. Those skeptics who doubted the wisdom of the democratic line will be saying "I told you so" with increasing conviction.

The skeptics will now call for a withdrawal from democratic politics. They will encourage a return to armed struggle. Angry young men who might have been restrained by participating in a movement that could demonstrate tangible political progress will once again vent their anger and frustration in violence. Then the White House will also say "I told you so" - these people are fascists, extremists and terrorists, just as we knew all along. And so a new cycle of misunderstanding, conflict and repression will begin. And it will be our friends, the ordinary people of the region, whom we will have reinvented as our enemies.

Jeremy Jones, author of "Negotiating Change: The New Politics of the Middle East," is a research fellow at the Belfer Center of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a senior research associate at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. His e-mail is