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COL The skeptics may be right: Democracy doesn't always fit

When you watch the violence unfolding in the Middle East today it is easy to feel that you've been to this movie before and that you know how it ends -- badly. But we actually have not seen this movie before. Something new is unfolding, and we'd better understand it.

What we are seeing in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon is an effort by Islamist parties to use elections to pursue their long-term aim of Islamizing the Arab-Muslim world. It is not a conflict about Palestinian or Lebanese prisoners in Israel. It is a power struggle within these countries over who will call the shots in their newly elected "democratic" governments and whether they will be real democracies.

The tiny militant wing of Hamas today is pulling all the strings of Palestinian politics, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah Shiite Islamic party is doing the same in Lebanon, even though it is a small minority in the cabinet, and so, too, are the Iranian-backed Shiite parties and the militias in Iraq. They are not only showing who is boss inside each new democracy, but they are also competing with one another for regional influence.

As a result, the post-9/11 democracy experiment in the Arab-Muslim world is being hijacked. Yes, basically free and fair elections were held in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. Yes, millions turned out to vote because the people of the Arab-Muslim world really do want to shape their own futures.

But the roots of democracy are so shallow in these places and the moderate majorities so weak and intimidated that we are getting the worst of all worlds.

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"Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinians all held democratic elections," said the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi, "and the Western expectation was that these elections would produce legitimate governments that had the power to control violence and would assume the burden of responsibility of governing. But what happened in all three places is that we produced governments that are sovereign only on paper but not over a territory."

Then why do parties like Hamas and Hezbollah get elected? Often because they effectively run against the corruption of the old secular state-controlled parties, noted Ezrahi. But once these Islamists are in office they revert to serving their own factional interests, not those of the broad community.

Boutros Harb, a Christian Lebanese parliamentarian, said: "We must decide who has the right to make decisions on war and peace in Lebanon. Is that right reserved for the Lebanese people and its legal institutions, or is the choice in the hands of a small minority of Lebanese people?"

Ditto in the fledgling democracies of Palestine and Iraq. When cabinet ministers can maintain their own militias and act outside of state authority, said Ezrahi, you're left with a "meaningless exercise" in democracy and state building.

It may be the skeptics are right: Maybe democracy, while it is the most powerful form of legitimate government, simply can't be implemented everywhere. It certainly is never going to work in the Arab-Muslim world if the U.S. and Britain are alone in pushing it in Iraq, if Europe dithers on the fence, if the moderate Arabs cannot come together and make a fist, and if Islamist parties are allowed to sit in governments while keeping armies.

The whole democracy experiment in the Arab-Muslim world is at stake here, and right now it's going up in smoke.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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