The wave of protests in the Arab world that began in Tunisia, and spread to Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen, have underscored the need to develop a unified Western policy toward these movements. Everyone supports the idea of democratic reforms that could lead to the end of authoritarian rule in much of the Middle East. Over the last number of decades, the lack of democracy in the Arab world actually helped perpetuate the Arab-Israel conflict. Arab rulers, whose were not democratically elected and whose legitimacy was in question, sought to inflame the conflict in order to legitimize their regimes. Democratically legitimized regimes would presumably not have to resort to such strategies.
But democracy is not just holding an election. There are anti-democratic forces in the Arab world today that hope to exploit elections in order to seize power; the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt comes to mind as an example of this challenge. For example, the former Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad Mahdi ‘Akef disclosed his view in 2007 that only Islam was “true democracy.” He told the BBC that Western democracy was “unrealistic” and “false.”
In 2006, the elections for the Palestinan Legistlative Council led to the victory of Hamas, which is defined as an international terrorist organization by both the European Union and the U.S. With an electoral victory in its wake, Hamas escalated rocket attacks against Israeli civilians in the following years, resulting in the outbreak of the Gaza War at the end of 2008.
Historically, democracies have sought to defend themselves from such situations by disqualifying those forces that do not accept the ground rules of democracy and will undermine the democratic system if they come to power. The Federal Republic of Germany has laws prohibiting the participation of the Nazi Party or the Communists in German elections. Actually, the Oslo II Interim Agreement from 1995 stipulated that any candidates, parties or coalitions will not be permitted to participate if they advocate racism or pursue the implementation of their aims by non-democratic means (Annex 2, Article III). This clause was plainly ignored by some Western powers who pressured Israel to let Hamas participate, nonetheless.
What is plainly needed are agreed criteria for electoral participation, as the West looks at the question of reform in the Arab world. There has been an unfortunate tendency to underestimate the true intentions of extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. This same error of misreading new radical Islamist forces occurred back in 1979, as well, when many analysts presented Ayatollah Khomeini as someone with whom the West could do business. These mistakes were extremely costly in the past and hopefully they will not be repeated in the future. The spread of freedom and democracy in the Arab world is unquestionably a positive development, but it must not assist those who would destroy it.