- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

President Obama hinted Thursday that the United States would for the first time accept the results of Middle East elections won by Islamist parties.

In contrast to the Bush administration, which boycotted groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah even after they performed well in elections, Mr. Obama said, “America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people.”

Those words carry particular significance because on June 7 Lebanon is expected to hold an election where Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group, could win a plurality of votes.

It was also a message to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose members running as independents won 88 seats — 20 percent of the Egyptian national assembly — in 2005 despite widespread cheating on behalf of the government.

Several members of the group were in the audience at Cairo University as the president spoke. Egypt holds new parliamentary elections next year.

In 2006, Hamas won an outright majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, leading the Bush administration to cut off all ties with a government that included Hamas.

The Obama administration has kept the basic conditions set forth under the Bush administration for contact with Hamas. The group must renounce terror, recognize Israel and adhere to past agreements before obtaining U.S. recognition.

In his speech Thursday, Mr. Obama warned Islamist parties that win power through the ballot not to use that power to block others from contesting future elections.

“This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others,” Mr. Obama said. “No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”

Soon after the Muslim Brotherhood’s gains, the Bush administration began to unwind its democracy promotion agenda in Egypt, cutting civil society funding from $50 million in 2007 to $20 million in the administration’s last budget.

In Egypt, Mr. Obama also avoided allowing himself to be photographed with Gamal Mubarak, the son of President Hosni Mubarak. Such a photo would have signaled U.S. approval for the elder Mubarak’s efforts to transfer power to his son without a fair election. Gamal Mubarak, who met with President Bush in 2006 in Washington, did not get an audience with Mr. Obama when he came to the U.S. in April.

Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said he approved of Mr. Obama’s comments on democracy.

“Partly this is a message to the Mubaraks of the Middle East that they cannot use the specter of Islamist parties being empowered to deter the United States from promoting democracy,” Mr. Malinowski said. “He is saying in principle it is not who you are, but what you do that matters.”

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