Hamas rule is all about “control,” as citizens suffer, says a Gaza-based civil society activist.
While some observers fear that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its various regional offshoots would create an Iranian-style ‘Islamic democracy’ if it took power, others invoke the ‘pothole theory’ of political moderation to suggest that Islamists will be too focused on delivering the jobs and services required to ensure re-election to impose a harsh theocracy.
But the experience of Gaza’s Hamas government, the region’s longest-serving Brotherhood regime, indicates a coexistence of pragmatism and militancy, while the degree of corrupt and nepotistic patronage in the enclave suggests that Islamists’ reputation for moral purity readily succumbs to the spoils of office and imperatives of maintaining a political base.
“As enthusiasm for Islamist parties grows in the Arab world and prompts questions about what shape political Islam will take, some say Hamas’s path from violent opposition movement to de facto government could be instructive,” Karin Brulliard writes in The Washington Post:
The militant Islamist movement surged to a surprise victory in Palestinian elections in 2006 with promises of clean governance and a reputation for terrorist tactics against Israel, which had withdrawn from Gaza the year before. But after five years of Hamas administration, many in this besieged strip say it has lived up to neither. Hamas is fast losing popularity, and recent surveys indicate that it would not win if elections were held in Gaza today.
The politics of corruption and self-interest are not unique to Gaza’s Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, say observers, citing widespread graft on the Fatah-dominated West Bank too.
“For 20 years after the peace accords, the Palestinian Authority has gone from concern for the collective to concern for itself, to stay in existence by collecting checks and paying salaries,” said Ibrahim Shikaki a youth organizer and lecturer at al-Quds University.
“Hopes of Islam-guided fairness and an end to the graft that had tainted the tenure of the secular Fatah party have turned to widespread griping about Hamas corruption and patronage, “Brulliard notes:
Hamas has hired more than 40,000 civil servants, and analysts say the top tiers are filled by loyalists. Members of the Hamas elite are widely thought to have enriched themselves through investment in the dusty labyrinth of smuggling tunnels beneath the border with Egypt and taxes on the imported goods. That money has been channeled into flashy cars and Hamas-owned businesses that only stalwarts get a stake in, critics say.
Amjad Shawa, head of a Palestinian NGO network, agrees: “The story in Gaza is control.”
Civil society groups have appealed to the Hamas-run legislative council to repeal restrictive new NGO laws that “will seriously affect their structure and work.”
Hamas is wary of politically-independent NGOs, observers suggest, in part because it has used its own network of welfare-based and other civil groups to build a political base and outflanks its rivals. It did so by initially diluting its Islamist message to appeal to a largely secular Palestinian society, according to Sara Roy, author of Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector. “Hamas has had to broaden its definition of Islam and ‘Muslimness’ in order to claim and maintain as large a number of adherents as possible,” she notes. The movement was obliged to “de-ideologize” Islam and base its appeal on addressing people’s material needs.
The intellectual poverty and political exhaustion of Palestinian political and civil society leaders is another reason why the Arab Spring has largely bypassed the West Bank and Gaza, says a leading analyst.
“They (the Intifadas) had limited political impact, and that’s why people haven’t repeated them,” said Rami Khoury of the American University of Beirut. “The Palestinian leadership is directionless and as the occupation continues, civil society and independent groups have failed to provide much intellectual guidance to the people.”
Civil society groups like the Al Dameer Association, a Gaza-based human rights monitor, try to hold the Islamist authorities accountable for rights abuses.
Human rights groups last week condemned Hamas’s “inhumane” use of torture and executions, citing flawed judicial procedures as a further cause for concern.
“The Hamas authorities’ execution of three convicted prisoners by hanging on April 7, 2012, highlights the need for a moratorium on capital punishment in Gaza, said Human Rights Watch, adding that “the persistence of unfair trials made the executions particularly egregious [while] the widespread use of torture on suspects in detention in Gaza adds to fair trial concerns.”
The Palestinian rights ombudsman documented 22 allegations of custodial torture in February alone. In 2011 the internal security service of the Interior Ministry and Hamas police in Gaza allegedly tortured 147 people, based on the ombudsman’s monthly reports.
Independent civil society groups also campaign against politically-selective patronage-based service delivery.
“The housing stipends, promised by Hamas social workers after much of Umm Mohammed’s neighborhood was demolished in an Israeli military assault three years ago, never came,” Brulliard notes. ‘The water barrels pledged by municipal authorities seemed to go only to Hamas cadres. Electricity is a rarity.”
Electricity cuts and fuel shortages are partly due to certain traders monopolizing fuel for sale on the black market, al-Dameer complains, calling on the two Palestinian governments in Gaza and Ramallah to devise “strategic solutions for ending the ongoing power crisis.”
The Gaza authorities’ response?
Hamas security services issued an arrest warrant for Al-Dameer director Khalil Abu Shamala, charging that his criticism of the coastal enclave’s energy provider “created a rift amongst citizens” and “threatened the security of the authority.” The group has also condemned Hamas’s attacks on Hamas’s political rivals and unexplained assaults on rights advocates, including an assault on Mahmoud Abu Rahma, international relations director at the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.
“If Hamas has not delivered clean governance, neither has it fully Islamized society, as some feared,” says the Post’s Brulliard, in part due to citizens’ rejection of Islamist strictures:
Alcohol and belly dancing have been banned. But efforts to require schoolgirls to wear veils, prohibit women from smoking water pipes or prevent “un-Islamic” behavior on the strip’s breezy beaches largely failed amid criticism from the public, which is generally conservative but “didn’t like Hamas or the government telling them how to behave,” said Gaza-based political scientist Mkhaimar Abusada.
“Not so bad, not so good,” is how Al Dameer director Abu Shammala describes Muslim-Christian relations in Gaza.
“For example, in 2008, we recorded a number of incidents, in which a Christian man was killed and some Christian[-owned] buildings were bombed by suspected Islamic extremists in the territory,” Abu Shammala said at his Gaza City office.
The main form of harassment suffered by Christians was, however, largely psychological.
“For instance, over the past few years, many Christian women in Gaza have been forced to put on a headscarf, something that can be attributed to the change since 2007,” Abu Shammala explained. “But in general, I can assure you that we as a rights group have not received any formal complaint by any Christian group or individual about any kind of harassment or violence by individuals, groups or authorities in Gaza.”
Authoritarianism has come more in the form of quashed dissent and arrests of perceived political opponents, actions that even Hamas supporters concede have cost the group support, Bruillard concludes.
“We became like a police state,” said Ahmed Yousef, a former adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. “They became scared of any rally or demonstration.”
It is that same suspicion of independent voices and hostility to political pluralism that leaves many observers wondering when or whether Hamas – and its fellow Ikhwan elsewhere will ever allow disillusioned citizens to vote them out of office.