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By Barry Rubin
I’m always a bit wary of using public opinion polls in the Middle East because much depends on the day the poll is done; the way questions are worded; and the fact that in authoritarian societies ruled by dictatorial regimes people don't necessarily speak their mind.
In this poll, by Near East Consulting, there are some peculiar results that make it appear skewed toward Fatah and against Hamas. This may have to do with the fears of those polled. It is revealing that—I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before—the official Fatah-controlled Palestinian press agency, Wafa, distributed a story on the poll because it fits with their political line.
But that fact makes the following two points all the more remarkable, even shocking compared to past, comparable polls:
--Asked to give their primary personal identity, 57 percent said Muslim; 21 percent, Palestinian; 19 percent, human beings; and only 5 percent said Arab.
This says something important about the steep decline in Arab nationalism but brings into question Fatah-style Palestinian nationalism, too. One can see oneself primarily as a Muslim and still support Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, but this upward trend also indicates of the growth of thinking likely to lead people toward backing Hamas in future.
--Asked what government system they preferred in future, about 40 percent said they want an Islamic caliphate. In addition, 24 percent seek a system like those in Arab countries, and only 12 percent prefer one like that in European countries.
While defining what an “Arab system” means is ambiguous, it is reasonable to presume that means an Arab nationalist dictatorship since at this moment virtually no Arab country is a democracy.
When asked whether they support Fatah or Hamas the results are so overwhelmingly pro-Fatah as to make one suspicious. It is safer for someone living in a dictatorship to discuss general principles rather than oppose that government in conversation with outsiders. Yet, again, one would expect a Fatah supporter to highlight a Palestinian or Arab identity rather than a Muslim one.
What this poll, and other indications, suggests to me is that the potential constituency for Islamism (Hamas) is at least 40 percent, for Palestinian nationalism (Fatah, Palestinian Authority) just over 20 percent, and for democracy about 12 percent. Most of those who expressed no opinion would probably support the PA to give it an election victory but that cannot be assumed.
Note that there is no real organized moderate democratic party in the entire Palestinian political spectrum. The findings remind us of just how small the base is for any modern democratic state in the sense that is understand not only in the West but also in much of Asia, Africa, and the Latin America.
Remember that in most of the rest of the Third World, even where dictatorship exists, a moderate democratic state is a popular aspiration. It may not be what people have but it is what the majority wants. This really doesn't seem to be true in the Middle East.
These figures also imply that Hamas is more likely to recruit current Fatah supporters than vice-versa.
There are hints here of what would happen in completely free elections in a future Palestinian state. They do not incline Israel—or anyone with good sense—to rush to support the creation of such a state, especially now that Fatah and Hamas are once again united.