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Online Extra: The Mideast: "Generalizations Don't Hold"

If the Palestinian Authority goes ahead with elections this January, and if the predetermined and the Palestinian Legislative Council again becomes, within short order, a rather docile creature of the Palestinian Authority, then it's tempting to say the election is not meaningful. If we're talking about elections as part of the process of building a democratic Palestinian state, before the election happens, let's talk about some things that increase the chances of the outcome of the election being meaningful, not tainted by terrorism.

It's reasonable to say that people who are violent combatants, who are currently engaged in violence as a means of achieving political ends, should not be simultaneously pursuing political means to an end. Isn't it reasonable to say: "Choose one or the other?" An election that serves to simply elect to Parliament people who are also planning attacks on Israel may not lead to a body that the international community should be compelled to deal with.

Q: How should the Bush Administration deal with an electoral outcome it doesn't like, the election of Islamists or Yassir Arafat?

A: I would argue that we should be prepared for a political process that's relatively free and open in the Arab world. Be prepared that the winners might be those that some of us in North America would not appreciate. We should be prepared to live with that.... [But] if they use that power to restrict democratic freedom or other freedoms, we shouldn't feel accept that diminution of freedom.

Left to their own devices, the Islamist parties look good in the Middle East and Arab world, and Turkey primarily, as a means of protest against corruption and mismanagement. Rightly or wrongly, they're perceived to have cleaner hands. They also represent a cry for identity. If you're young, probably unemployed or underemployed, and feeling very discouraged about life and the chances of betterment of life, you may feel compelled to cast a vote for the party that represents your Islamic and Arab identity to throw a scare into your own government and to throw a scare into the U.S. for good measure.

Left alone to govern, where Islamists have to enter the pragmatic world of [politics], they drift down to a normal state of support. Islamist parties would relatively quickly drift below the 20% mark in every Arab country -- that would include Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt -- if [they] were allowed to run. They'd end up at natural level of support at 15%, and none of us would have to worry about it. At 15%, they're a legitimate political strain. Voting for them in protest gives them a false level of support.

Q: How are the State Dept.'s democracy-building efforts, such as the recent conference here for 50 Arab women activists, working?

A: They're looking at targeted openings where there's some hope in the region. They're trying to expand small openings. They're providing workshops on the ground. When I was with the Arab women the first morning, they were kind of cynical. "Why are we here? What about Iraq?" They were having a hard time getting along with each other. They were Moroccans, Yemenis, Saudi, Kuwaitis, Algerians, and Palestinians. They don't have much in common other than the language.

After a few days, they had both Republican and Democratic women political consultants talking about message development and image and targeting and fund-raising. The combativeness and cynicism disappeared. They said, "We didn't really know what this was about. We thought it was about trying to convince us that the U.S. is not as bad as we think. But we're getting a lot of practical information here. We need to learn these things."

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