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Rami Mehdawi, Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy & Community Development, 26 July 2006
I didn’t always know that there are different definitions of democracy. Studying for my Masters at Birzeit university, I learned that there are many, and that each one serves a certain ideology, a certain vision and certain interests. It’s as if each definition is working to legitimize its own ownership of the concept of democracy which others must recognize and abide by.
Election Fever hit Palestine in 2005-2006. Presidential, parliamentarian, municipal and union elections invaded the region and knocked on the door of every Palestinian. Major players in the democratic process took their places in media, civil society, political parties and unions. Even though it happened under occupation, analysts called it a ‘Democratic Honeymoon.’
The people in our region want things like good governance, democracy, support for civil society, poverty eradication, access to information, and funding development (ask: funding for development? Access to loans? More money for NGOs?). But what are the United States’ demands of us as the third world? And what is the cost of our compliance?
In January’s elections, the Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas got an unexpected majority of Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) seats. Reactions ranged from ‘Congratulations on your democratic honeymoon!’ to freezes in diplomatic relations, cuts in foreign aid, a siege upon the Palestinian Authority and accusations that the elections were undemocratic.
I was at Birmingham University in Britain at the time, performing a three month academic fellowship exploring the meaning of democracy, and I was so proud of the election process. Despite occupation, we managed to conduct elections under a completely democratic process. But I was confused by the barrage of questions I was asked in the wake of Hamas’ win. Is it a democratic and transparent election when Hamas takes control of the PLC? Why did Hamas win the majority of seats? Are Palestinian voters all terrorists?
As all these questions washed over me, I kept thinking about clashes between the different theories and concepts of democracy. On one hand, local and international observers, including the mission headed by Mr. Jimmy Carter, stated that elections were transparent. On the other, the media, US and British public opinion leaders, Israel, EU countries and international organizations all launched a campaign against the election outcome.
My clear and consistent feeling was ‘I am not a member of Hamas and I didnÂ’t vote for them, but Hamas won the elections, it was a democratic process and we have to accept the outcome and start relations with the winner of these elections. Outcomes canÂ’t be accepted or rejected upon the requests of the Lords of Democracy, Mr. Bush and Tony Blair.’
Democracy or elections have become a commodity marketed by the US Â– only to be practiced in the time and place it advocates. If outcomes are not as requested, ‘democracy’ backfires on its consumers, bringing them negative consequences Â– frozen relations and sabotage of the existing political system of that consumer.
US efforts to paint individuals in Palestine as ‘undemocratic and disrespectful to human rights’ starts with international platforms like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent, legitimizing and enforcing an underlying hidden agenda.
For example, the shift in US position towards Libya in relation to the Lockerbie bombing and the countryÂ’s weapons program is indicative. Libya was depicted as undemocratic and a violator of human rights conventions when it was not obeying the orders of the US, but a different image was put forth after Libya gave up biological and nuclear weapons programs and paid compensation to Lockerbie victims. Libya was then removed from the list of countries that support terrorism, lauded as a model supporter of democracy, and bilateral relations were resumed.
The same case is present in Iraq. Let’s imagine the scenario if the former Iraqi president Sadam Hussein had complied with US demands and cooperated in the bilateral relations suggested by Bush and Blair. Would Washington and London then be waving the banner of change for the authoritarian system of Iraq? Would elections then be conducted?
Democracy and human rights have become an instrument for threatening world leaders who don’t abide by the instructions of the Lords of Democracy. Although perceived as authoritarians by their people, the international community ceases to view them that way once they have agreed to follow the LordsÂ’ rules. Why is there no insistence on a move towards democracy in Egypt while all eyes are on human rights violations, good governance and transition of authority in Syria, for instance?
But let’s go back now to the Palestinian case and examine post-election reactions. Hamas won an unexpected majority of PLC seats (74 out of 132). An initial Israeli reaction was to block Palestinian tax money (Israel receives PA taxes on its behalf as the PA does not have an access point to receive tax money), suspending the $55 million monthly transfer to the Palestinian Authority. Israel also pushed the international community to stop relations with the new government as headed by Hamas or be subject to Israeli sanctions and suspension of relations. The US decided to cut relations with the new government and restricts its relations to Fatah leader and President Mahmoud Abbas (Fatah was the majority party in Palestine prior to January’s elections and is now the main opposition party in Palestine).
European countries and the UN took the same position and cut aid to the Palestinian Authority. Both The Jordanian and the Egyptian Authorities refuse to welcome the newly appointed Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Mahmoud Al-Zahhar. The Lords of Democracy pressured banks to stop relations with employees of the Palestinian Authority. There is no money in the Palestinian treasury. PA employees havenÂ’t received their salaries for months. On May 23rd 2006, US congress passed a law cutting aid to Palestinians. Whoever follows a bypass channel is brande as a terrorist or a supporter of terrorism. Israeli Occupation has now laid siege to the Gaza Strip, kidnapping 64 Palestinians among whom are eight government ministers, 21 PLC Members and a number of Heads of Local Councils.
In Palestine, as in neighboring countries like Iraq and Lebanon, inhumane and irresponsible actions are taken against civilians. Massive killing is practiced and the US Administration and Israeli Government are not being held accountable for human rights violations and destruction of infrastructure. On the contrary, the US President declares and states that Israel has the right to defend itself.
The Lords of Democracy maintain control by controlling the definition and practice of democracy. They define the common good for all people in the world. Lords like the World Bank, the UN and the International Monetary Fund grant legitimacy and credibility to that definition. We have to listen to the Lords of democracy or we are evil. If you are not with this Lord, you are against him.
So what can I tell young people in trainings on democracy, citizenship and human rights? I remember a child trainee telling me, ‘Democracy cut my father’s salary. Now I don’t get money to buy ice cream anymore.’ We have come a long way in developing democracy despite occupation, but this democracy cut ice cream to this child.