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Husain Haqqani considers the future of Palestine under Hamas

Don’t predict, wait and see, he recommends

Ambassador Husain Haqqani has a wide range of experience as a journalist, a diplomat and former Pakistani ambassador to Sri Lanka, and an advisor to three Pakistani prime ministers. A native of Pakistan, he came to the United States in 2002 as a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.

Haqqani, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of international relations and director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations, returned Monday from a trip to Palestine, where he served as an observer of its recent elections. He spoke to BU Today about the future of Palestine under Hamas.
What was your role as an observer of the Palestinian elections?

The role of election observers is primarily to ascertain on the basis of predetermined criteria whether an election has been held according to the laws and the basic standards of fair and free elections.

I was part of a delegation put together by the Carter Center, headed by President Jimmy Carter, and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. There were also others, from the European Union and Canada. We all spread out at randomly checked polling stations. Even early on, people were observing the process.

On polling day, I was deployed in Tulkerem, in the north of the West Bank, a slightly troubled area known in the past for violence as well as intense poverty. It’s pretty restricted because of several terrorists and suicide bombers that came from that area. All those factors made it a very interesting area to be in. But our role as observers is never to interfere with the election process. Then collective reports of all observers are worked together into a report issued by NDI.

What did you see?

On a firsthand basis I got a feel for life in the West Bank. I saw a community in transition. It was such an amazing feeling to see everyone, irrespective of whom they supported, wanting to make democracy work. It was so interesting that the polling staff were all very professional, and the police were trying to enforce the law rather than benefit one party or another. Even in the areas where violence has been a problem, for the purpose of the elections everyone abided by the rules of the game. And that is a positive development in itself.

How does this compare to the presidential election in Palestine last year, where you were also an observer?

I would say it’s an evolution. I can see the evolution of the process. I can see there is an attempt to become more democratic. The presidential election was also pretty free and fair, and that outcome was more or less predictable. Everyone knew that Mahmoud Abbas would win. This time it was a contested election, everyone was unsure what the final outcome would be, and it was unlikely that the final outcome would make everybody happy. It’s in situations like this that people try to muscle their way into success. But Fatah, the leading group in the Palestinian Authority for 40 years, accepted its defeat with grace. And Hamas, which is a terrorist group in the eyes of the United States, the European Union, and most countries of the world — for it to just not use force during the electoral process was, in itself, a demonstration of the power of the idea of democracy.

Some news reports said that U.S. officials expected Hamas to win no more than 30 percent of the vote in the Palestinian election. How could the United States have been so wrong?

Elections are not easily predicted. In this case, the election was based on a system whereby people voted in their districts and for a national list. Hamas and Fatah were very close on the national list; Fatah had 27 and Hamas, 30. In the districts, Fatah had more than one candidate for each seat, and some people who were not on the ticket officially insisted on running individually. And so they divided the Fatah vote.

President Bush has said that he won’t support a government led by Hamas unless it recognizes Israel’s right to exist. Who would win that standoff?

I think we will have to wait and watch. Many militant and terrorist movements in the past have evolved. Once given the responsibility of representing or leading their people, some have chosen to renounce arms. Let us see if a similar process takes place here or not.

The relevance of the Palestinian Authority is as a negotiating partner for Israel in a process to lead to the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. At some point either Hamas will have to follow the route taken by Fatah [or the cycle of violence will continue]. There was a time when Fatah did not recognize Israel’s right to exist, and they gave in on that to be able to negotiate a future for their people.

If not, there two alternatives. Either the region will again plunge into a cycle of violence, which will be won by the party which is better equipped and better armed, and we all know that is Israel, or there will be a new political force that will emerge, representing the Palestinian people, saying they want to negotiate and end hostility and seek a two-state solution.

Palestinians now enjoy about $1 billion a year in aid from outside countries, many of which are threatening to close their wallets. What can Hamas do to persuade outsiders like the United States to keep the money coming?

I don’t think Hamas has given much thought to it. Hamas has won not on the basis of its charter, but on the basis of its campaign against corruption in Fatah. Did the average voter really mean to give Hamas a mandate to destroy Israel? Or did he really want to give a mandate to clean up the house and the Palestinian Authority? That will all play itself out in the days to come.

The most important thing about this election is that it’s an exercise in democracy, and the people have changed their leadership. But it’s not easy to predict the behavior of the leaders or the other players in this, the president (Abbas), the leaders of Israel. What will be the interplay of the various governments or the international community? There are a lot of factors involved in this. I think that too many predictions at this point will lead to erroneous conclusions.

The Palestinian Authority is totally dependent on the international community. The Palestinian people would like a better life for themselves, and they thought they were voting for a better life. My feeling is that the voters did not anticipate giving Hamas an overwhelming majority. I think they expected it to be more a knock to Fatah, teaching them a lesson, which kind of went farther than people had expected.

What can Hamas do now?

It is very clear that there are people in Hamas who want to present themselves as a force for moderation. Those people didn’t talk about violence during the campaign. And there are the people who want violence and nothing else. All political parties, including militant ones, include a diversity of opinion. At the moment, they will keep a brave face on it, but surely there are debates taking place in Hamas, such as how can we fulfill our promise of better managing the aid if there is no aid. Those will all be interesting developments.

What do you think motivated the peaceful execution of this democratic process?

I think that the Palestinian people did feel this was an opportunity for them to effect change without the traditional pattern of coup d’état violence that has characterized the Middle East so far. There is a maturity in public opinion and a desire to reflect that, to try and see that political change is effected through the ballot rather than through bullets.

Tonight, Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 7 p.m., Haqqani will discuss his latest book, Pakistan from Mosque to Military, at Barnes and Noble at Boston University in Kenmore Square. It currently tops the list of best-selling nonfiction books in India.