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Hamas and the old/new American crescent

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Hamasby Joseph Massad

If the outcome of the so-called "Arab Spring" has been the accession to power of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and a similar Islamist movement in Tunisia, and the strengthening of sectarian and tribalist jihadists in the guise of "fighters for democracy" in Libya and Syria (the temporary defeat of the Bahraini and Yemeni peoples' uprisings notwithstanding), the recent admission of Hamas to the ranks of forces that not only do not threaten American interests in the region, but also would like to work to enhance them is a notable transformation.

Qatar has been the mover and shaker in this battle to extend and upgrade the informal international legitimacy that Hamas has in the eyes of the people of the region and Third World allies to the official level of Arab and Western governments. That Hamas, with Qatari support, was the first Islamist party in the Arab world that won a solid electoral victory in 2006 did not serve to grant it the legitimacy it deserved in the eyes of the United States, the most formidable anti-democratic force in the region and the world.

Instead, it galvanised the US, Israel and the collaborationist Palestinian Authority to stage a coup against it to deprive it of that victory. Having understood that the electoral strategy failed to have Hamas replace Fateh at the helm of the PA, Qatar and the top leadership of Hamas realised that the "Arab Spring" offers important new opportunities in this regard.

Slowly but surely, Hamas was pulled out of Syria and is being fully taken out of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance that threatens US-Israeli-Saudi strategy in the region, not only by transferring its top leadership from Damascus to Qatar, but also through a major rehabilitation effort of Hamas in Jordan, whose King Abdullah had exiled members of the Hamas leadership in 1999 on the orders of the US and Israel.

Jordanian electoral politics

As this will spell the accelerated rate at which Hamas will be offering concessions and reassurances to American interests following in the footsteps of Fateh, the PA is becoming most worried about its standing and its increasing dispensability for both Israel and the United States. US-supported and -protected Arab dictators have always feared only one type of domestic opposition to their rule, namely opposition groups who offer to serve US imperial interests as loyally as the existing regimes do.

Such fear was always warranted and well-founded, especially in the case of Egypt where the US has been for over a decade and a half courting the Muslim Brothers whose neoliberal businessmen leadership had assured the US of full compliance and collaboration with US policies better than even Mubarak could offer (indeed in contrast with the neoliberal right-wing of the Egyptian Brothers led by millionaire Khairat al-Shater, the centrist Abdel al-Moneim Aboul Fotouh was done away with fairly quickly, first by being expelled from the Muslim Brothers and later by losing the elections).

I should note here that the US' openness to what it calls "moderate" Islamists has also been supported by a good number of Zionists and Israeli strategists who have been debating such alliances and their long term costs and benefits for the Jewish settler-colony.

The Fateh-controlled PA, like all other Arab dictatorships, prefers a Hamas that threatens US interests and fears most of all a Hamas that is willing to serve them as well as, if not better, than the PA has. The recent flexibility of Hamas on this question, with the prompting of Qatar, has raised alarm bells in PA corridors. Al Jazeera's revelations about the possible poisoning and murder of Yasser Arafat are hardly incidental to the effort of finishing off the PA, once and for all. The PA's futile bid for UN membership is a last ditch effort to save itself, with ambivalent Saudi backing.

Enter the quagmire of Jordanian electoral politics, and I use the term "electoral" very loosely. Jordan has been witnessing a wide-ranging movement for change for the last year and a half, whose leaders are Transjordanian Jordanians as well as former regime operatives (of all geographic origins) who have fallen out of favour in recent years, or at least have been pushed away from the centre of decision-making.

The majority of Palestinian Jordanians have remained quiescent throughout, terrorised as they are, not only by the ongoing institutionalised government discrimination against them which includes their ongoing unconstitutional denationalisation, but also by the poisonous chauvinism of a substantial segment of Transjordanian nationalists, some of whom call for the denationalisation and expulsion of Palestinian Jordanian citizens from the country outright.

Anti-Palestinian cause

The anti-Palestinian cause in chauvinist Transjordanian circles (on the right or on the left) is so widespread that many of the pro-reform and pro-revolutionary elements leading the pro-democracy struggle in the country see their legitimate struggle for democracy and against the dictatorship of the regime and their chauvinist anti-Palestinianism as one and the same fight - meaning that democracy will put political power in the hands of Transjordanian Jordanians, where it should reside, and take it out of the hands of the monarchy, which the chauvinists allege, against all existing evidence and historical facts, is an ally of Palestinian Jordanian interests.

This is not unrelated to the fact that King Abdullah is married to a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian and that his son and crown prince, Hussein, is therefore half-Palestinian. This has always bothered the chauvinists, who, however, do not seem bothered by the fact that the king himself is half-British and his former crown prince - his brother Hamzah - is half-American, presumably, because, unlike the Palestinians as depicted by the chauvinists, neither the British nor the Americans have imperial designs on Jordan at all!

As the exceedingly conservative government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Tarawneh, at the instructions of the Palace, the labile US ambassador, and the ubiquitous Jordanian Mukhabarat, insists on refusing to reform the undemocratic election law which marginalises the majority of Jordanians (especially of Palestinian Jordanians) and on holding the elections before the end of the year despite the declaration by all significant political forces in the country that they will boycott them, the reform agenda in Jordan seems closed until further notice.

Indeed, al-Tarawneh, whose education in electoral democracy is limited at best, has threatened to criminalise calls for boycotting the elections, hinting that if people do not register to vote, they could open themselves up to government prosecution.

In the meantime, former regime servants, like Marwan Muashsher (Jordan's first ambassador to Israel and the country’s former ambassador to the United States and a former minister), who is a prominent member of the pro-reform loyalist political elite, are calling for the reform of the existing electoral law (as are the Muslim Brothers and other opposition groups), as a way of defusing the popular mobilisation against the regime and ending the crudest aspects of institutionalised discrimination against Palestinian-Jordanians.

Such measures, elite reformists believe, would strengthen the regime and the government through a democratic veneer that will certainly be undercut by traditional regime co-optation of parliamentarians. Unlike the Muslim Brothers and a large part of the popular opposition in the country who call for constitutional amendments to limit the absolute power of the king, the former regime operatives limit their call to reforming the election law.

Fateh and Hamas

They seem, however, oblivious, to the fact, that even if Jordan were to enact the most democratic and representative of electoral laws, and if it were to run the freest elections (compared to past parliamentary elections, which, even Jordanian prime ministers now admit, were forged), and were to end institutionalised anti-Palestinian discrimination, none of these important measures would guarantee democracy in the country, mainly due to the basic fact of constitutional limitations on the power of Jordanian parliaments, which the King with absolute power guaranteed him by the current constitution, could dissolve at will.

That the strategy of Prime Minister al-Tarawneh is not working is evidenced by the very low turnout of Jordanians registering to vote. As a result, the government has sought to bring in Hamas and Fateh to compete for the favour of the Jordanian regime in its struggle against democratic reform. Both Fateh and Hamas have jumped at the opportunity to serve the regime and government interests in the country, in the case of Fateh as part of its attempt to salvage whatever legitimacy it can, and in the case of Hamas as part of its attempt to prove its mettle to US interests.

Fateh and Hamas were brought in to mobilise Palestinian Jordanian citizens, especially those who live in the refugee camps, and who have remained outside the ongoing popular mobilisation in the country, to register to vote and defeat the opposition's call for a boycott. Hamas was further asked, in the person of its diasporic leader, Khaled Mish'al (one of the top Hamas leaders who had been unconstitutionally barred as a Jordanian citizen from entering the country by King Abdullah in 1999) to persuade the Jordanian Muslim Brothers to relent on the boycott and participate in the elections.

The competition is now on as to who will prove to be more effective in serving US interests in Jordan, Fateh or Hamas. As Qatar has been reassuring the Americans, increasingly successfully, that the takeover of political power by Islamist forces, specifically the Muslim Brothers and kindred groups, is the best option for the US to stabilise the region for decades to come without its imperial strategy being threatened, its push to bring Hamas into the fold of US strategy may soon prove successful.

This is in line with Qatar's support of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and the Ennahda party in Tunisia, as well as its support of the Muslim Brothers in Syria and assorted Islamist forces in Libya. We must bear in mind here that Mish'al's recent move to Qatar is not a new one. When King Abdullah banished him from Jordan in 1999, Mish'al went to Qatar and only moved to Syria in 2001, also under US and Israeli pressure at the time, though he remained the organisation’s most senior link to the Qataris.

Same old American crescent

In the meantime, the PA is drowning in its own miasma of corruption, tyranny and collaboration with the Israelis and the Americans. That it has very little more to offer to Israel and the US is the deciding factor in its survivability or demise and the strengthening of Hamas's legitimacy in US and Israeli eyes. We remain unsure if or when Hamas will declare to the Americans, following Arafat's humiliating performance in 1989, that its charter is "caduc" and that its anti-colonial resistance has indeed been "terrorism" all along, which it now "renounces".

It also remains unclear what kind of opposition and resistance exists within Hamas to this new political transformation. As the buzz is increasing in the Arab media about a much delayed Palestinian "spring" in the West Bank, it remains to be seen if this would help this process of substituting Hamas for Fateh along or not.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the rule of the Muslim Brothers and Ennahda party is proceeding with active oppositions (and not only of the counter-revolutionary forces of the anciens regimes which indeed remain active) and popular checks and balances and a popular insistence on the democratic functioning of governance. Moreover, as the Muslim Brothers have ideological red lines that they cannot cross easily with regards to relations with Israel, their limitations will ensure that American demands on that score will not be fully satisfied.

Popular pressure on the new regimes, as has been evidenced, will also restrict their full compliance with US strategy, especially on the economic side of it. Indeed, how far the two new regimes can go in accommodating US interests, despite their sincere commitment to them, remains to be seen.

In Libya, the instability of the new order will remain for the foreseeable future, while in Syria, the regime has recently reasserted its military power over the jihadists in Damascus and Aleppo who have hijacked the pro-democracy movement. As a result and increasingly, the outcome in Syria is no longer assured as it once was for American, Saudi and Qatari interests.

As Hamas is admitted into the US camp, the new "crescent" that is slated to dominate (part of) the region is not "Shiite" and anti-American at all, as US and Saudi propaganda and their allies have claimed for the last decade, but the very same old American crescent, headed by the old tyrannical regimes and the triumphant Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. That this is the American plan being executed for the region is clear enough, its success however is far from being certain.

Joseph Massad teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York.


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