Palestine: ...Actually, It Just Highlights Their Bankruptcy
By Jared Malsin
If Palestinians were to stage an uprising against their own authoritarian leaders, Ramallah's al-Manara Square might be their equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Palestinians celebrated news of the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in al-Manara on Friday night, Feb. 11 -- a brave decision, given that their protest was in violation of an explicit order by the Palestinian Authority (PA) banning demonstrations in solidarity with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
In Ramallah that night, Palestinians showed a willingness to defy the PA rarely seen in the areas of the West Bank it controls. Civil society activist Omar Barghouti was one of those who joined the Ramallah gathering, which he called a "wonderful celebration." He held a sign reading "Freedom Wins! 2 Down, 20 to go!" Fireworks could be seen over several West Bank towns.
As publics throughout the Middle East follow Egypt's lead in demanding accountability from their governments, the PA figureheads in Ramallah -- President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad -- have good reason to be alarmed. Long before the Egyptian revolution, the PA faced serious questions about its legitimacy from Palestinians who increasingly view it as complicit in Israel's occupation of their land.
The PA initially sided with the Mubarak regime when the Tahrir uprising broke out, sending security forces to crush pro-democracy protests in the West Bank. Senior PA officials vilified the Egyptian demonstrators, with Abbas aide Tayeb Abdel-Rahim making dark allusions to the protesters' "suspicious allegiances" to "international and regional forces," a reference to the laughable theory that the uprising was a foreign or Islamist conspiracy.
Since then, the PA and PLO have adopted a more moderate, more conciliatory tone, responding to the present demands for accountability with three measures: the resignation of chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, the dissolution of the cabinet, and a call for local elections in July and parliamentary and presidential elections by September, though no dates have been set.
In the long run, none of these measures is likely to rescue Abbas and Fayyad. A similar cabinet reshuffle in May 2009 resulted in little substantive change. Any new cabinet would also continue to face questions in terms of legality: Fayyad's unelected government derives its mandate from a 2007 presidential emergency order of doubtful constitutionality.
Erekat's resignation, coming in response to Al Jazeera and the Guardian's release of peace process documents known as the "Palestine Papers," was more significant because of his seniority in the PLO. But this move, and the subsequent closure of his Negotiations Support Unit, could prove problematic. If direct control over negotiations reverts to Abbas, as some Palestinian officials privately predict it will, this would further centralize power with the president. It would also further blur the lines between the PA, whose authority is limited to the West Bank and Gaza, and the PLO, an organization intended to represent all 10 million Palestinians -- including refugees across the Middle East and the world.
The PA's call for elections is also not viable because the PA never stood a chance of convincing Hamas, which governs Gaza, to accept it. Since 2007, the group has argued that political and administrative reconciliation must precede elections. In the new reality following events in Egypt, Hamas is even less likely to compromise on this point, viewing the PA's position as weakened. To be fair, Abbas's Fatah movement and the PA are hamstrung from striking a new unity deal with Hamas due, it is widely believed, to opposition from the United States and its other international backers. Any deal with Hamas would risk Western donors canceling the funding the PA needs to survive.
This lack of diplomatic independence is another of the sad truths that alienate the PA from its own people. In the wake of Egypt's revolution, Abbas and Fayyad will face calls for deep and radical reforms -- including their own resignations -- and demands for a viable liberation strategy vis-à-vis Israel. If they do not heed these calls, they could soon face their own Mubarak moment in al-Manara Square.
Jared Malsin is the former chief English editor of the Palestinian news agency Ma'an. His website is jaredmalsin.wordpress.com.AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images