The Palestinian Leadership after Mubarak

Fear of Revolutionary Contagion

The legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership is currently being undermined not only by upcoming elections, but also by the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries. Christian Sterzing reports

The legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership is currently being undermined not only by upcoming elections, but also by the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries. Christian Sterzing has the details

Demonstrators in Ramallah (photo: DW)
While the police dispersed groups of Palestinians demonstrating their solidarity with the people's uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the people were allowed to celebrate the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ramallah

​​In the shadow of dramatic events in Tunis and Cairo, the situation in Ramallah has remained relatively calm. Small-scale attempts at demonstrations by young Palestinians in solidarity with the Egyptian uprising were quickly dispersed by baton-waving police officers serving the Palestinian authority government because – according to the official line – unauthorized spontaneous demonstrations "would only cause chaos."

Nevertheless, a few hundred Palestinians were allowed to celebrate the toppling of Mubarak undisturbed in Ramallah's central Manara Square.

When it came to expressions of solidarity with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the political leadership of the Palestinian Authority was very restrained. Too close were the links to and the cooperation with the Mubarak regime, which – in the form of former spy chief Omar Suleiman – made a concerted if futile effort over the past few years to achieve internal Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and repeatedly served as a mediator with Israel.

No knock-on effect

The spark from Tunis and Cairo didn't light the touch-paper in Gaza. While the Hamas regime did allow sit-ins, it did not tolerate demonstrations that could have escalated out of control. The toppling of Mubarak is viewed in Gaza with a degree of satisfaction. The former dictator was accused by people here of collaboration with Israel and the brutal repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a movement that spawned Hamas.

In Gaza, the hope is that a new regime in Cairo will spell the end of the Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian-Egyptian border crossing at Rafah has been closed for some time, and black market prizes have risen over the past few weeks. This is because supplies from Egypt have been delayed due to the unrest and the fact that the Israelis have repeatedly interrupted already restricted deliveries to the Gaza Strip "for security reasons".

Mahmoud Abbas (photo: AP)
Under pressure: fearing unrest in the Palestinian territories, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has reacted to ongoing accusations of corruption against individual ministers by reshuffling his cabinet

​​But the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions did have a certain political impact here. The administration in Ramallah seems to fear a revolutionary knock-on effect the most and has reacted by surprising Palestinians with a democratic pre-emptive strike: local elections – around two years overdue at this stage – will be held on 9 July and national elections for the parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, and the presidential office in September.

Protest against new elections

According to the Palestinian constitution, these polls should have been held long ago: the presidential election should have taken place in early 2009, and the parliamentary elections in January 2010. However, Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 and the enduring political rift between Fatah and Hamas nullified all plans.

The Hamas protest against the election announcements wasn't long in coming: "no elections before national reconciliation" was the resounding message from Gaza. "We've got nothing against democracy, but only when Palestine is reunified!" announced a Hamas spokesman.

Nevertheless, up to now Hamas has not shown an inordinate interest in a national reconciliation with Fatah; the movement is primarily focusing its efforts on consolidating its power in the Gaza Strip by slowly but surely advancing the Islamisation of society and tightening its authoritarian grip through persecution of its political opponents.

A constitutional argument against the elections was also cited by Hamas, which said that the "government" in Ramallah has no legal basis for such an undertaking. That is undoubtedly correct, because the constitutionally scheduled periods of office for president and parliament have long expired. However, the same can also be said of the "government" in Gaza.

Nevertheless, up to now no legal expert has been able to identify a process by which, in view of the political division of Palestine and a non-viable parliament (Hamas deputies are either in Israeli prisons or are not allowed to travel to Ramallah), a constitutional government could be established and elections set in accordance with the Palestinian Basic Law.

Political legitimation through elections?

Hamas supporters in Gaza City (photo: AP)
Hamas rejects plans for elections and does not recognise Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian President

​​In the first instance, however, the key political questions are firstly, whether elections solely in the West Bank – and without the participation of Hamas – would only serve to deepen divisions and secondly, whether a curtailed election process such as this could really give the leadership in Ramallah the political legitimacy it hopes for.

The wave of democratisation sweeping across the Arab world is jangling nerves in Ramallah, as the resignation of all ministers in the cabinet of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad shows.

Fatah in particular has for some time been lobbying for stronger representation in the cabinet, a cabinet that the non-Fatah affiliate Salam Fayyad assembled primarily from what could be described as independent technocrats.

Now in the run-up to elections in particular, Fatah hopes to boost its own profile with its own cabinet ministers and to profit from positive developments in the West Bank – a modest economic upturn and a stabilisation of the situation from a security policy standpoint.

But whether this will be enough to gloss over Fatah's strategic and personnel vacuum remains seriously doubtful.

Since its crushing defeat at the hands of Hamas in parliamentary elections in 2006, Fatah has so far failed to reactivate its old reputation – both politically and in respect of personnel – as forerunners of the resistance against the occupation and as a driving force shaping Palestinian society.

"Palileaks" and the consequences

The publication of numerous secret Palestinian documents from peace talks with Israel, now known as the "Palileaks affair", has led many Palestinians to fear that they are now facing a "sell-off of Palestinian interests", indeed treason, due to what they perceive as over-generous concessions to Israel. The leaks have damaged the reputation of the leadership in Ramallah, in particular that of President Mahmud Abbas and his Fatah movement.

Sajeb Erakat (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
Sajeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator for many years, resigned following the so-called "Palileaks" scandal

​​Past experience has shown that in Palestine, the announcement of elections does not mean that these will actually take place. Election dates are dependent less on constitutional rules and more on opinion polls and anticipated election results. In addition, Israel, the occupying power, will want to have a say in the matter.

With regard to Palestine, the "only democracy" in the Middle East (for how much longer?) sympathises with the Arab practice to date of only holding elections when the desired result can be guaranteed.

That the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 – which Hamas were permitted to contest due to pressure from the US and despite Israeli opposition – resulted in a surprise landslide victory for Hamas is a lesson in itself.

National reconciliation would, therefore, be the prerequisite for a successful election process, but at the moment, neither Israel nor the US are interested, and Hamas and Fatah are still not showing any genuine will.

The suspicion that the announcement of elections and the cabinet reshuffle are nothing more than cosmetic measures aimed at letting some of the steam out of the Palestinian pressure cooker would therefore appear to be justified.

Christian Sterzing

© Qantara.de 2011

Middle East expert Christian Sterzing was head of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Ramallah for many years

Translated from the German by Nina Coon.

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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