It has long been a proposition in international political theory that democracies will not engage in warfare with each other. The belief is based on both history and the idea that populations free to choose their leaders won't perceive a significant threat from a competing democracy and thus won't accept the risks and costs of such a conflict.
The current hostilities between Israel and the Hamas political leadership in Gaza within the context of the “Arab Spring” revolutions may provide an interesting test of this proposition. The Hamas regime in Gaza, while elected by the residents of that forlorn coastal enclave, cannot in any way be considered a democratic form of governance. The fundamental question however, involves other Arab nations that are in political transition. The case of Egypt is particularly important. As the Egyptian revolution progressed and the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak was deposed, Western governments and observers engaged in “cautious optimism” that the eventual result would be a democratic system which it was hoped would provide more stability to the region. A panel is struggling to create a new constitution and elections were held to elect a civilian executive and legislature from competing political parties. But elections themselves do not create a functioning democracy and the Egyptian experiment is still a work in progress. The governing majority and the executive branch are controlled by the Freedom and Justice Party which is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization, which claims to have abandoned violence in pursuit of religious objectives but which has a dubious history in this regard. The administration and the constitutional panel are under increasing pressure from fundamentalists to govern from an Islamic perspective including a legal system based on Sharia (Koranic) law.
The incompatibility of religious governance with individual freedoms basic to a democracy presents particular problems for the future of Egypt. Should this contradiction be resolved however, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, especially as regards the situation in Gaza, presents the issue of democratic regime conflict. Can a truly democratic nation support a non-democratic entity in a conflict against another democracy? The Hamas regime in Gaza which is an off shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been engaged in military hostilities with Israel since Hamas' formation in 1987. Its founding charter denies Israel's right to exist. It has been identified as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States. It exists as a competitor to the more moderate and more democratic Fatah party which controls the Palestinian Authority and which governs the larger Palestinian territory in the West Bank.
Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi has expressed specific support for Hamas during the recent conflict, condemning Israel's response to the barrage of rocket attacks by Hamas on Israeli territory while ignoring those attacks. The Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Qandil visited Gaza in support of their operations against Israel. The Egyptian government is not acting beyond the approval of the Egyptian populace. Anti-Israeli demonstrations have replaced the anti-Mubarak demonstrations of the previous year and a majority of Egyptians support the abandonment of the historic Egypt/Israeli peace treaty in place since 1978.
It is this popular sentiment, not only in Egypt but across the Islamic Middle East, unleashed by the overthrow of the autocratic regimes, that casts a shadow over transitions to democracy in the region. It is certainly not necessary for the maintenance of a democratic system to be neutral towards the state of Israel. The Prime Minister of the more democratic state of Turkey has used inflammatory rhetoric in condemning Israel as a “terrorist state” engaged in “ethnic cleansing”. However the same Islamic fervor that underlies popular animosity to not only Israel's policies but also to the very existence of that nation, as implied by support of Hamas, will be the on going obstacle in creating societies which protect basic human rights. The energizing of these Islamist factions over the Gaza/Israeli conflict will place future political outcomes more in doubt.
Thus while the transition towards democracy and the direction of Egyptian foreign policy may change the assumptions regarding conflict between democracies, this is more a subject of academic interest and the more important issue is the validity of Egypt's transition to true democracy itself, which in turn offers insights to the struggle of revolutionaries in Syria to oust the dictator Bashar Assad.
Al Qaida terrorists and other Sunni Muslim extremists are among the militias fighting the Syrian military and will be part of the competition for political power after the inevitable downfall of the Assad regime. Recently it was reported that “ Several extremist Islamist groups fighting in Syria have said they reject the new Syrian opposition coalition, which was formed under the guidance of the United States, Turkey and Gulf Arab countries. The development underscored worries about the rising influence of religious fundamentalism amid the chaos of the bloody civil war in Syria.”
Both the recent conflict in Gaza and the continuing chaos in Syria have enormous importance to the future of the region and to U.S. interests. President Obama sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo to take part in the multilateral attempt to negotiate a cease fire between Hamas and Israel while he was attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia. A tenuous cease fire has been announced although the possibility of an Israeli ground invasion in response to future Hamas intransigence remains a possibility.
It is not in the interests of either side to allow that to happen. Hamas and its supporting militant groups would be defeated. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) would suffer casualties but the civilian population in the densely populated 141 square mile territory would suffer the most. This would bring more outrage against Israel from regional governments and harsh disapproval from most Western governments. It would also further weaken the standing of the more moderate Fatah led Palestinian Authority among the Palestinian population as a whole and among the regional governments.
Thus the Israeli/Palestinian struggle which has been going on since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 will be an important factor in the political development of the regional Arab nations now freed from their former autocratic systems. Opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinians is largely based on ethnic and religious identification. As such it embodies a level of personal prejudice and hatred which is unlikely to diminish. As long as the issue of Palestinian statehood remains unsettled the domestic pressures on Arab leaders, especially by religious fundamentalists and extremists will manifest itself in competition for political power in national governments. Islamists actually gaining control of governments or even forcing compromises among more moderate political leaders will not allow the full development of democratic systems and will foster continued regional instability and conflict. The U.S., as the major supporter of Israel's ability to defend itself, will have no friends in the Middle East and cooperative relationships as with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Turkey will suffer.
The U.S. cannot impose a “two state solution” on Israel and the Palestinians but even as this has been accepted as the only viable outcome to end the decades old conflict, the negotiating process which is the only way forward has largely been abandoned as a strategy by both parties. The Palestinian Authority instead seeks a path to statehood through the United Nations. Israel has placed unrealistic territorial obstacles in the way of substantive negotiations and the Palestinians are not a single national entity which is necessary for negotiations. Hamas clings to the delusion that Israel must be militarily defeated or accept a “right of return” for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and their descendents who were forced to leave Israel during the 1948 war. This is essentially a demand that the Jewish state negotiate itself out of existence. A national unity government created by elections or compromise between the Gaza based Hamas and the West Bank based Fatah has to be created in order to move forward. Regional governments, especially Egypt should be encouraged to engage Hamas and Fatah in pursuit of this fundamental issue. Blind support of the implacable Hamas will never lead to a solution. This is where the Obama Administration should focus its diplomatic attention while at the same time convincing Israel to put together realistic negotiating principles as a next step.
Thus the unresolved Israeli/Palestinian issue will continue to impede democratic progress in the new regional governments. In Egypt, warning signs in addition to Islamist support of Hamas have appeared. President Morsi has “issued constitutional amendments granting himself far-reaching powers and ordering the retrial of leaders of Hosni Mubarak's regime for the killing of protestors in last year's uprising”.
Morsi is essentially governing by decree, in the absence of a constitution and has rejected the authority of an independent judiciary to review the legitimacy of the constitutional panel, and the upper and lower houses of parliament, all of which are currently in the hands of Islamist majorities. This is a dangerous precedent, and appears to be a further concession to the Islamist factions to whom Morsi was pandering with his hostile rhetoric in support of the Hamas regime in Gaza. Taken together they indicate a strong anti-democratic impulse yet remains in Egyptian political culture.