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US Grapples With Arab Elections that Produce Islamist Victories

By Mohamed Elshinnawi, VOA, Washington, DC

In his latest State of the Union address, President Bush urged the Arab World to embrace democracy and free elections. The recent Egyptian, Iraqi and Palestinian elections show that democracy in the Arab World can unleash political forces that are not friendly to the United States. VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi has more.

"The United States of America supports democratic reform across the broader Middle East," said U.S. President George W. Bush in his address to Congress.

President Bush has declared that spreading democracy in Iraq and the greater Middle East will benefit the region.

But recent history shows that Islamic political groups have reaped the benefits, at the expense of secular, authoritarian regimes.

And the Palestinian elections demonstrate that pro-American factions do not always win, even if the U.S. is the promoter of democracy in the region.

Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the United States needs to modify its approach. "What I expect to happen is that the US will be very cautious in pushing for elections as soon as possible and particularly national level elections because it was quite clear that if democracy calls, the Islamists answer."

Dr. Ottoway says authoritarian regimes will lose free elections and if Islamists win, the U.S. can work with them.

"There is a wing in most of these organizations that is really pushing for democracy, and they are among the best advocates for democracy that you find in the Middle East now. And I will argue that they really believe what they are saying, you know, there is always this doubt -- is this just tactical and so on -- I think there is definitely a group in all these Islamist organizations that believes in the value of democracy and is ready to make the compromises that are necessary."

Other analysts say there is no democratic alternative to the Islamists because unelected regimes have imprisoned and harassed all other opposition voices.

Christine Nazer, Director of Communications at the Arab American Institute in Washington, says the U.S. should be building up moderate factions in Arab countries.

"I think the best strategy for the U.S. to follow is to empower the moderates by helping them through aid, through building institutions, economic growth, trade so many ways U.S can empower moderates It is not necessary for the U.S. to come out and say we are not happy with the outcome of an election, the smarter way especially in the Arab World would be to empower moderates and bring about change that it can come from within."

Dr. Tamara Cofman, Research Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington says there is no alternative for the US to be involved in some way in the democratization of the Middle East:

"American engagement in the region is a fact, America's strategic interests in the region are strong and many, so the U.S. can not take a neutral stance on the future of this very important part of the world. The U.S. is going to be engaged in one fashion or another. Given that, I think it is important, it is wise for the U.S. to have put itself on the side of democracy and freedom in the region."

But, analysts say, the U.S. has to find some way to deal with victorious Islamists, while it promotes democratic alternatives.

... Payvand News - 2/7/06 ... --

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