What price inclusion?

Many Palestinian politicians and analysts are optimistic that the Hamas organization, the military wing of the traditional Muslim Brotherhood, is ready to be integrated into the political system. Views vary, however, on the price that might be exacted for this, and what political weight Hamas will come to carry within the system.

The inclusion of Islamic political parties in political systems in the Arab world has been controversial since the Algerian elections were cancelled at the last minute when it was clear to almost everybody that the Islamic movement there would win. While this was clearly undemocratic, there is always a question mark over whether Islamists who take power by democratic means are committed to maintaining parliamentarian democracy, or to changing the system to an Islamic regime, which is a different proposition.

That debate has been particularly fierce in recent years and has included many of the prominent thinkers from within the Islamic movements. The conclusion reached was that if Islamic movements are to play the democratic game, they have to play it properly. In other words, they have to accept that democracy can circulate power between them and others.

In the Palestinian context, public opinion polls indicate that Hamas are set to seize a sizeable minority in parliamentary elections. This is tempting many Palestinians, including those in power, to make overtures toward Hamas and other fundamentalist groups to become part of the system with a share of the decision-making responsibility, because, as long as they are a minority, it will force them to respect the will of the majority.

It is possible that Hamas, which so far maintains a fundamentalist ideological and extreme political position, will become a pragmatic movement if it has the chance to be part of official politics, locally, regionally and internationally. The rhetoric of Hamas now reminds many of Fateh’s rhetoric when it was treated by the "legitimate powers" as an "illegal terrorist group". Fateh successfully worked out a trade-off. It was recognized and included in the system in return for playing politics within the parameters of international legality.

It is likely that Hamas is willing to take the same path. The question, however, is whether the trade-off this time will also allow Hamas to become the determining factor in official politics. In other words, would the price Hamas insists on be merely an inclusion in the political system, or will it demand a leading role within that system, as Fateh obtained at the time.

It’s also important to remember that there is a significant difference between Hamas now and Fateh then, i.e., the former’s fundamentalist ideological attitude and political extremism. Many sectors of Palestinian society are troubled by the idea of Hamas domination because of issues that go beyond politics and touch on the social and ideological. These sectors insist that the real question is not whether to encourage Hamas to become a part of the system, but at what price such inclusion comes.

Overall, there seems little doubt that if Hamas accepts to become part of a pluralistic political system and to abide by the rules of democracy that include adherence to the constitution and thus ensure regular elections and the circulation of power, it would be a useful outcome for everybody in Palestine and beyond. But an outcome that replaces one dominant political tendency with another, is not going to improve the internal Palestinian situation or move forward the democratization and reform process.