Is Hamas genuinely democratic?

  March 28, 2022   Read time 4 min
Is Hamas genuinely democratic?
This is a standard rhetorical question which is always waved in the face of Islamist movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. There is little historic experience upon which one can judge accurately whether these movements have adopted democratic practices wholeheartedly.

The same lack of actual history should also allow some benefit of the doubt. In the Middle Eastern context the question applies equally to all parties regardless of their political ideology. Democratic practice is visibly in short supply, and in the postcolonial era in the region there have been almost no fully fledged democracies. In Arab republics, nationalist and socialist parties have come to power, by either elections or military coups, and have never relinquished power peacefully. In Arab monarchies, changing the system by democratic means has been out of the question. Thus, questioning how authentically democratic the Islamist movements are, in an environment that lacks democracy, implies considerable accusation as a starting point. In all the cases in the Middle East where ruling parties rejected democracy, or dismissed the results of elections because an opposition party won the majority, the intransigents were nonIslamist parties.

Therefore, Hamas is as genuine in its democratic conviction as any other political party, in a region inexperienced in this form of governance. There are, however, certain specificities in the make-up of Hamas that could help in exploring level of its democratic credibility. Internally, the movement has embraced democratic practices in choosing its leaders. These practices have been well established and have even stretched less practicably to areas where democratic consensus might not have brought about ideal results. For example, when Hamas was in the process of forming its government in March 2006, the prime minister and all the cabinet ministers were elected by the rank and file. In the process, Hamas’s cabinet ended up with a team of ministers that was not necessarily composed of the best people for their responsibilities. Instead of mandating the prime minister to form his government as a working unit based on professional and political considerations, all of the individual ministers were imposed on him in a democratic but perhaps more shambolic fashion from the party floor. It would appear that it could be safely said that there is no authoritarian system within Hamas as a party. In most cases, and at least in the Middle Eastern context, parties with authoritarian internal practices tend to import these qualities into their governments when they come to power.

It also must be remembered that Hamas has always defined itself as a resistance movement, essentially preoccupied with confronting the Israeli military occupation of Palestine. This occupation, with all its military resources, has always held the upper hand in this conflict, and controls every aspect of sovereignty over what has been left of any Palestinian state. All internal Palestinian politics take place under that control, and being voted in to take charge of a Palestinian government that functions under ultimate Israeli rule is hardly a great enticement to Hamas. Specifically because of the parameters of this foreign military control, Hamas never aspired to, or planned to, win a majority in any Palestinian elections, since this would have forced it into such an awkward position. Hamas’s victory in the 2006 elections caught the movement by surprise, and it is hard to imagine Hamas wishing to cling to this awkward position by blocking or manipulating any coming elections. Given the ‘siege’ of protest and censure that it faces regionally and internationally, Hamas’s biggest challenge will be to avoid total collapse and finish its four-year term in government with the least possible losses. Any scenario that has Hamas manoeuvering to remain in such a compromised position of power by force is highly unlikely.

Within the Palestinian polity, especially in the post-Yasser Arafat era, the Palestinian political environment is not receptive to any kind of authoritarian rule. The centres of power have been fragmented and Hamas is at loggerheads with its rivals, particularly the Fatah movement. If Hamas decided to remain in power contrary to democratic practices, the immediate internecine result would be severe. Furthermore, the diversity of Palestinian society, the high level of education, and the general envy of the ‘Israeli democracy’ next door, narrow down any possibility of the development of an undemocratic Hamas. Secular, leftist and liberal lines of thought have been historically engraved all over Palestinian society, no less upon the powerful Palestinian Christian community, which is highly politicized and active. Thus, even if Hamas wanted to opt for any undemocratic form of politics the surrounding internal circumstances would abort that option.

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