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Push for Middle East democracy benefiting Islamists

WASHINGTON—Call it a case of why you should be careful what you wish for.

President Bush's efforts to spread democracy to the Middle East have strengthened Islamists across the region, posing fresh challenges for the United States, according to U.S. officials, foreign diplomats and democracy experts.

Islamist parties trounced secular opponents in recent elections in Iraq and Egypt.

Hamas, the armed Islamic Palestinian group, appears set to fare well in Palestinian parliamentary elections Jan. 25, posing a quandary for how the United States and Israel pursue peace efforts. Hamas has carried out suicide bombings against Israel and calls for the country's destruction.

In Lebanon, the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah is part of the government for the first time.

Washington considers Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which have Iranian support, to be terrorist groups.

"In the short run, the big windfall winners ... have been the Islamists," said Michael McFaul, a Stanford University expert on democracy and development.

In the long run, democracy probably will lead to a more stable, economically flourishing Middle East, McFaul recently told a Washington conference. But he added: "We're taking a chance."

Islamist groups espouse Islam as the answer to their countries' problems. They appeal to large segments of Arab societies, particularly when the only alternative is the repressive state apparatus. They've proved adept at providing social services that governments often don't, and they're largely free of the financial corruption that plagues many Arab countries.

Most strongly oppose U.S. foreign policy in the region and don't acknowledge Israel's right to exist. Their long-term commitment to the give-and-take of the democratic process is largely untested.

Bush administration officials and many pro-democracy advocates argue that Islamist politicians inevitably will become more moderate once they're given the responsibilities of power. That hasn't happened, however, in Iran, which is Shiite but not Arab.

"It's entirely possible. But I think it's going to be a bumpy ride," said F. Gregory Gause III, the director of Middle East studies at the University of Vermont.

Bush used his second inaugural address a year ago Jan. 20 to make spreading democracy, particularly in the Islamic world, the priority of U.S. foreign policy. The ultimate goal, he declared, is "ending tyranny in our world."

The United States is spending roughly $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2006 to promote democracy worldwide, the president said last May.

He argues that democracy will reduce the threat from terrorism. Some political scientists, including Gause, disagree.

Even Bush's critics give him credit for convincing Arab regimes that Washington is serious about democracy and for encouraging a tide of relative openness from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Pushing democracy is slowly becoming entrenched as a priority at the State Department under Condoleezza Rice and at other agencies, officials said.

But the successes are far more modest than the White House has described them, some said.

"Freedom is crawling—over broken glass," said a State Department official, scaling back the president's frequent contention that "Freedom is on the march." The official requested anonymity in order to speak more frankly.

Bush and Rice rarely discuss in public the prospect that Islamists could be the prime beneficiaries of their policies.

Asked at a town hall event Wednesday in Louisville, Ky., about the lack of separation between church and state in much of the Middle East, the president replied: "It's going to be the spread of democracy itself that shows folks the importance of separation of church and state." He cited Iraq's new constitution, which says Islam is "a basic source of legislation" but guarantees rights to the country's non-Islamic and non-Arab citizens.

Last spring there were elections in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak allowed multiparty presidential elections for the first time; and Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon under international and local pressure, leading to new polls there.

But a more sober mood has set in.

"People were overly optimistic," said former State Department official Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national-security research center. "And now people are overly pessimistic."

Repression and one-man rule remain the norm.

The Economist magazine's Intelligence Unit in November gave only two countries in the Middle East relatively high marks on a 10-point scale of political freedom: Israel (8.20) and Lebanon (6.55). Morocco, Iraq and the Palestinian areas each scored slightly above 5 points, while 15 countries didn't reach that halfway mark. Libya got the lowest score, 2.05.

Recent developments include:

_ Iraq. Parties representing secular Shiites fared poorly in December's parliamentary elections compared with an Islamist Shiite slate. Shiites, Sunni Muslim Arabs and Kurds are struggling to form a coalition government, but it isn't clear that the Shiites and Kurds are prepared to compromise with the minority Sunnis, who were the backbone of Saddam Hussein's repressive regime.

_ The Palestinian Authority. Hamas appears poised to break the decades-old political monopoly of the secular Fatah movement. With Fatah bitterly divided, Hamas will finish just behind or possibly even ahead of the late Yasser Arafat's party in elections for the Palestinian Parliament, according to an analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center. That raises the prospect that Hamas will get Cabinet posts. Israel has said it won't deal with any Palestinian government that includes the group.

Rice this month rejected suggestions that the elections be postponed. "I don't really believe that we can favor postponing the elections because we fear an outcome. I think that's not appropriate," she said.

_ Egypt. Candidates affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood fared better than expected late last year in parliamentary elections that outside observers described as flawed.

The elections "left the secular opposition extremely weak," according to a report by the International Republican Institute, which is funded by the U.S. government.

While Mubarak's decision to hold multiparty presidential elections last September raised hopes of a democratic transition, "the 2005 parliamentary election process suggests otherwise," the report said.

In December, secular opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour was sentenced to five years in prison on forgery charges widely thought to have been trumped up by the regime.

_ Lebanon. Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon last April, and Lebanon held its first modern elections free of Syrian domination in June.

But the excitement of the "Cedar Revolution" has been replaced by political deadlock among Lebanon's contending religious groups. The touchy issue of disarming Hezbollah, the Shiite militia, remains unresolved.

Syria's withdrawal and the parliamentary elections "were presented abroad, particularly in the United States, as a turning point for Lebanese democratization. In reality, the change was more limited, and the old problems of Lebanese politics remain," Julia Choucair wrote in a paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

_ The Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia permitted municipal elections last year, while Kuwait's Parliament gave women the right to vote. But real representative democracy seems decades way at best.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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