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"The Power of Democracy"


I’ve been recalling an editorial from the Chinese People’s Daily Online that I read last month. It suggested that while many westerners trumpet the concepts of “freedom and democracy” as universal values, in practice western governments selectively apply them. It noted specifically: “On Dec. 25, [2005] the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) put up a strong showing at Palestinian local elections. On the next day, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that Hamas should not be permitted to participate in Palestinian polls until it renounces violence. If the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) allows political participation of Hamas [without disarming], Washington will freeze or slash its financial support to Palestine. On Dec. 19, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana made it clear that if the Hamas should win in the election of the future Palestinian legislation committee, the EU will consider halting its financial aid to the PNA.” Observing that “no party” had questioned the “fairness of the elections,” the editorial suggests that “in the spirit of democracy, [the] results of a just election, whether liked or not, should be unconditionally accepted and respected.”

I’ve been thinking too of President Bush’s November 6, 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy. With all other justifications for the Iraq War exhausted, Bush began using his “democracy in the Middle East” apologia, which is broad enough to apply to any number of future wars. The whole Middle East, the argument now goes, is a “breeding ground for terrorism” attributed to radical Islam. It will remain so until democracies replace the various tyrannies and despotic monarchies of the region. Bush made it clear he wanted to break with the past, implying that “sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East” had led to the 9-11 attacks, and that now the U.S. would adopt a new “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” This was the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI)—an “initiative” by the U.S. to monitor, punish and reward progress towards “democracy” in Muslim countries from Morocco to Afghanistan.

I thought all this was the most transparent of ploys, or at least it should be to anyone with a knowledge of the history of U.S. behavior in the region. As a rule the U.S. has coddled royalty, supported repression of dissidents (especially those on the left or Islamist in character), supported or opposed secularist Baathism depending on the alternatives, backed the annulment of democratic elections when won by objectionable parties, and vilified as “terrorist” some political organizations popular enough to get members and supporters democratically elected in fair polls. Think of how the U.S. overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and imposed in its place the regime of the Shah (who became so hated that the Iranians rose up in the most genuine, mass-based revolution in Islamic history in 1979 to drive him from power). Think of how the U.S. has abetted the liquidation of leftist dissidents in Iraq and Iran, or of how it once saw the Baathists as its “party of choice” in Iraq so long as the Baathists were butchering communists. Think of how the U.S. backed King Hussein in April 1957, six months after Jordan’s first election, which had brought a leftist to power as prime minister. Hussein dismissed the government and banned almost all political parties. Think of how the U.S. welcomed Algeria’s decision in January 1992 to cancel elections when it appeared that the Islamic Salvation Front, an Islamist party, would win a majority in parliament. Think of how it dismisses the Hizbollah and Amal parties in Lebanon, who won 35 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament last year in elections the U.S. considers “free,” as “terrorist organizations.”

The Bush administration has maintained the old pattern, justifying it as necessary for the “War on Terrorism.” It has merely added some rhetoric about democracy and freedom, which sounds hollow and hypercritical to elites and to the masses as well throughout the Muslim world. Some among the elite seem inclined to submit just enough to U.S. pressure for reform to demonstrate to Washington what real democracy might mean. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt loosened the reins a bit last year, allowing a dramatic increase in the Muslim Brotherhood presence in the Egyptian parliament. Last year the Brotherhood candidates, who ran as independents since the party is outlawed, received 88 (20%) of the seats in parliament. All the legal opposition parties together received only 14 seats. A freer, more democratic electoral process would surely bring more Islamists into positions of power.

Surely Bush’s advisors know this, and fear the consequences of legitimate elections in countries where the masses despise their leaders as well as American imperialism. What they want is not democracy but the appearance of democracy: video images of queuing voters, watchdogs’ assurances that the balloting was fair, and a respectable majority for a pro-U.S. party. Thus Bush assures us that two more nations (Afghanistan and Iraq) have been made “free” since 9-11, although warlords continue to dominate the former an a Shiite theocracy is taking shape in Iraq. But a country like Iran, with a multi-party parliamentary system that former deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage actually acknowledged (in early 2003) to be a “democracy” is now daily vilified as a world’s greatest threat to democracy and to goodness in general. The neocons who sidelined Armitage and his boss Colin Powell to launch the war on Iraq, hoping to install Ahmad Chalabi as their strongman in Baghdad and avoid untidy democratic processes, have perfected the tradition of American hypocrisy on this issue.

And now they are confronted with what MSNBC calls “a stunning victory” of the Islamic Resistance Party (Hamas) in Palestine. In the parliamentary elections, Hamas has taken 76% of the seats, and the party’s green flag now flies in front of the Parliament building in Ramallah. This wasn’t supposed to happen; Hamas is on the State Department’s list of “terrorist organizations” and supported by the two next countries the neocons want to attack, Iran and Syria. It wasn’t predicted; the Boston Globe headline Thursday morning was, “Close Fatah win seen in Palestinian vote.” The vote has shocked western leaders; Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi calls it, “a very, very, very bad result,” while French prime minister Dominique de Villepin indicated that Paris couldn’t work with “a Palestinian government of any kind” that doesn’t renounce violence and recognize Israel. The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was more positive. “We must respect the election result,” he declared, “although it was not the outcome we had wished.” As for the U.S. president, judging from his press conference Thursday, the poll results have shocked and confused him. They present a real challenge to his “Middle East initiative” and to his belief that U.S. power and pressure can force people to do what he wants.

He tried to put a positive spin on things. The Hamas victory, he said, “reminds me about the power of democracy,” as though this isn’t something he talks about incessantly and needs to be reminded of from time to time. “You see, when you give people the vote, give them the chance to express themselves at the polls and they’re unhappy with the status quo, they’ll let you know.” This almost sounds like an effort to empathize with the Hamas voter, fed up with Fatah corruption and incompetence, and an acknowledgement that the democracy he has been preaching can backfire on him. He called the election result “very interesting” and even seemed to both concede its fairness and take credit for the event by stating “we’re watching liberty begin to spread across the Middle East. ” But he added, “the United States does not support political parties that want to destroy our ally, Israel, and. [we insist] that people must renounce that part of their platform.” The implication is that, however democratically elected Hamas may be, the U.S. won’t deal with a Hamas-led administration nor hold Israel to the “road map” the Palestinian Authority had earlier embraced unless Hamas renounces violent resistance and recognizes the Jewish state.

But what if the majority of the Palestinian people, freely and democratically expressing their will, want to keep “that part of their platform” that calls for the destruction of Israel? Will Palestine become that neocon nightmare—a quasi-state with a regime of unquestionable democratic legitimacy that is also “terrorist”? Won’t that discredit the whole premise of the “democracy initiative”? Won’t it be necessary to demonize not just the party but the Palestinian people who in a massive turnout voted three to one in favor of Hamas? A people who (it will be alleged) misused their votes in voting for the wrong people, rather like the Chileans in 1970 when, Henry Kissinger declared, they had displayed “irresponsibility” by democratically electing a Marxist as president? (President Allende was killed in a fascist coup supported by the U.S. three years later.)

There are few reasons to cheer the acquisition of power by fundamentalist religious forces who have already closed down all the liquor stores in Gaza and who would like to impose Islamic dress and conduct codes on women. As a secular nationalistic movement Fatah would seem more progressive on the face of it. But if this unanticipated poll result exposes Bush’s hypocrisy, lends encouragement to forces in Egypt and elsewhere who demand free elections in order to topple U.S.-backed dictators, and produces a setback to the neocons’ efforts to remake Southwest Asia as an American empire, it can’t be all bad.

Soon after 9-11, as Bush prepared to launch an attack on Afghanistan preparatory to a more general assault on the Muslim world, his administration explicitly declared support for an independent Palestinian state. This obvious sop to Muslim opinion was followed by the June 2002 speech in which Bush proclaimed Ariel Sharon “a man of peace,” blamed the Palestinian Authority for the delays in the “peace process” and announced he would refuse to meet with Yassir Arafat. Now, surrounded by scandal, weakened in the polls, failing in Iraq, he must deal with a Palestine even less inclined to accept his dictates. Very interesting indeed, the power of democracy.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

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