The death of Yasser Arafat and the fall of Saddam Hussein have changed the political landscape of the Middle East. Iraqis defied insurgent threats to vote in their first free election in a half century. Palestinians likewise queued to elect a new leader. The democratic wave spread fast. Lebanese outrage at the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February culminated in the end of Syria's long occupation and the demand for truly free elections.
The democratic wave has emboldened dissidents to voice unprecedented criticism against dictators. In Damascus, for example, Aktham Naisse openly called for the repeal of the emergency laws upon which the Syrian regime derives dictatorial power. In Libya, Fathi al-Jahmi, a former provincial official, challenged Muammar Gadhafi to hold contested elections. In Egypt, Ayman al-Nour likewise challenged President Hosni Mubarak.
Dictators have taken notice and adopted the rhetoric, if not the substance of democracy. While Saudi officials trumpet the kingdom's first-ever municipal elections, few Saudis have accepted as sufficient the resulting councils, which have neither legislative nor budgetary authority.
Iranian leaders have likewise co-opted the rhetoric of democracy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini repeatedly promised an Islamic democracy, even as he ushered in dictatorship. "By the time we learned what he meant, it was too late," a former revolutionary told me when I visited Isfahan in 1996. Iranian President Muhammad Khatami, labeled a reformer in the West, also twisted the meaning of democracy, when he wrote that he supported the concept, so long as only those with "several years of [Islamic] studies" could fully participate.
While American, European and Israeli officials remain cynical about democratic rhetoric emanating from dictatorships, many remain curiously blind to terrorist groups claiming a new commitment to the political process. On April 13, 2005, for example, White House spokesman Scott McClellan labeled Hamas candidates who won elections "business professionals," a curious moniker for members of a group responsible for the deaths of more than 400 Israelis in the past five years. European officials and American intellectuals have repeatedly engaged Hamas. At the height of the 2002 suicide bombing campaign against Israel, Alistair Crooke, a European Union security advisor, held talks with Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations last year, Crooke argued that Hamas could be a political partner.
Despite its harsh rhetoric about the war on terrorism, the Bush administration has also gone wobbly on Hezbollah, an organization responsible for the terrorist murder of more Americans than any other group prior to September 11, 2001. According to two former Central Intelligence Agency officials, President Bush authorized outreach to the group in the wake of the World Trade Center attack. The dialogue continued despite Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's October 2002 comment that "if they [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide."
In a March 15, 2005 press conference, Bush offered political redemption for Hezbollah if they laid down their arms. The failure of engagement became clear one month later when, in an interview with Beirut's Daily Star, a Hezbollah official both promised Palestinian fighters whatever "material support" they needed to fight Israel and also announced that Hezbollah would send deputies to Europe to engage politicians and promote the group's activities "as a resistance group and political party."
In Egypt, too, American officials have reached out to Islamists whose commitment to the democratic process is dubious. Asharq al-Awsat reported last month that American diplomats had held talks with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group whose armed wing is responsible for thousands of Egyptian deaths. Not long after the diplomats' visit, terrorists detonated a bomb in a popular market and sprayed a tourist bus with bullets.
Without fail, engaging terrorists backfires. On April 29, 2005, an Islamist Web site broadcast a speech by terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi citing American outreach as evidence of weakness. "The severe blows you dealt this enemy, by the grace of Allah, forced America to beg for negotiations," he said.
While true democracy is the Achilles heel of Middle Eastern dictatorships, insincere commitment to democracy can undercut peace and security. The sincerity of terrorists should no more be trusted than that of dictators. They may adopt democratic rhetoric - but words are cheap.
Any organization that targets civilians for political gain should be irredeemable regardless of whether, like Hamas and Hezbollah, the group provides social services: If Oxfam or Save the Children blew up buses, they would be terrorist groups, not humanitarian organizations.
On May 2, Natan Sharansky resigned from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, warning that failure to link Israeli concessions to Palestinian democratic reforms would "strengthen the forces of terror." American and European officials may praise advances in Palestinian democracy, but Sharansky is correct to call into question the sincerity of such rhetoric. After all, even as Middle Easterners genuinely strive for democracy, American and European officials have developed a track record of naively valuing rhetoric more than reality.
Ultimately, it will be Israeli lives on the line.
Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.