Hamas and Democracy

Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers in 1787, “Men love power… Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many.” The strongest safeguard against political abuse is that the people have the power to remove those in office through elections: democracy!

The French thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, once described the greatest danger from democracy as coming from “the tyranny of the majority.” Similarly, Lord Acton, the British historian, identified that same downside of democracy: “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather that of the party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.”

Around a decade ago, the electoral victory of Hamas sent a bombshell throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world. Political analysts in the US, Europe, and the Middle East had suggested that spreading democracy was the surest antidote to Islamists terrorism, drawing on a literature which suggests that “democracies very rarely go to war with each other.” But Hamas is a political party that has an armed terrorist wing and is pledged to the destruction of Israel and creating problems to Egypt through its ties with IS in Sinai. Moreover, Palestinians in Gaza neither live under the political liberties nor the economic conditions which the political theory of democracy promises. Can they, accordingly, force Hamas out of office?

Democracy was contrasted with monarchy (rule by one), oligarchy (rule by a few) and aristocracy (rule by the best). I have no idea under which form would a political theorist color Hamas!

The first thing to draw from Hamas’s story is that one democratic election is not the equivalent of democracy. So the fact that Hamas has won power “fairly and squarely” does not necessarily portend the continuation of a Palestinian (or Gaza) democracy. Yet, suppose Gaza becomes democratic in the future. What can we look forward to?

I do not think the question is answerable if democracy is analyzed realistically! The economist Joseph Schumpeter sketched in his seminal 1942 book, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, what has come to be called the theory of “elite” or “procedural” or “competitive” democracy. In this concept, there is a governing class (consisting of people who compete for political office) and a citizen mass. The governing class corresponds to the selling side of an economic market, and the citizen mass to the consuming side. Instead of competing for sales, however, the members of the governing class compete for votes. The voters are largely ignorant of policy, just as consumers are ignorant of the inner workings of the products they buy. But the power of the electorate in Gaza to turn the “elected” officials from Hamas out of office at next elections (if they ever happen) gives the officials an incentive to adopt policies that do not outrage public opinion and to administer the policies with some minimum of honesty and competence.

The majority of analysts would then claim it was Fatah’s dramatic failure along these dimensions that opened the way to Hamas’s surprisingly strong electoral showing years ago and that Hamas has been cleverly coupling their armed resistance to Israel with the provision of social welfare services, managing more efficiently and honestly than the services provided by the other Palestinian government, controlled by Fatah.

I guess there is no theoretical or empirical basis for supposing that popular majorities in all societies are bound to favor more enlightened policies than a dictator or oligarchy would. How then to explain the empirical regularity that democracies rarely war with each other or the claims that if “Palestine” were democratic, it would stop trying to destroy Israel or any other surrounding country?

Another interesting policy question would be whether the Palestinians who voted for Hamas were behaving “rationally.” The answer lies in considering what is required for democracy to take root rather than to make a rapid transition to dictatorship. Can anyone tell us how to create a full or partial democracy in Gaza?

Strategically speaking, the wiser course would be for Hamas to be fully transparent regarding its intentions toward Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. What about the people in Gaza who await the democratic theories of “credible” and “responsive” governance by Hamas which had already claimed that it could win an election by emphasizing its ability to run a government more efficiently and with less corruption than Fatah?

About the Author
Fadi A. Haddadin is a Jordanian economist and policy analyst.
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