Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke Monday night about the democratic upheavals in the Middle East and its consequential boost to Islamic parties. Stating that what political parties call themselves is less important than what they do, Clinton’s strong underlying message in her speech was that that the Obama administration is willing to work with the rising Islamist parties of the Muslim world.
Clinton noted, however, that “Parties committed to democracy must reject violence; they must abide by the rule of law and respect the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and assembly; they must respect the rights of women and minorities; they must let go of power if defeated at the polls.” She didn’t go into detail about what the Obama administration would do if, say, an Egyptian government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t abide by her rules.
Clinton’s words solidify the Obama administration’s policy in the wake of the Arab uprisings and recent Tunisian election. Two days prior to the secretary’s speech, U.S. special coordinator for transitions in the Middle East, William Taylor, also said that the administration’s dealings with the Arab World’s Islamist parties will be based “on what they do,” adding that the so-called Arab Spring has created an environment that allows for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to move away from their association with terror.
Perhaps, although there is little reason to believe that groups committed to violence for decades will now forgo their ways just because the dictators who suppressed them for so long are gone. Instead, many analysts debate the extent to which the Islamic factions running in elections in the Arab World are genuinely committed to upholding and preserving democracy, arguing that they may now use the elections as tools for acquiring power, a la Hamas or Hezbollah.
Of course, the Obama administration should take the Islamist parties’ actions into account when forming its policy in the new Middle East, but ignoring history and these parties’ affinity towards violence would be an enormous mistake. Washington can’t afford to be hazy-eyed now in dealing with the region. Far too much is at stake.