Democracy Lab

Building Palestinian Democracy, One Brick at a Time

Palestinian businessman Bashar al-Masri has a plan for building democracy on the West Bank. And it's not really about politics.

Rising from the desolate hills north of the West Bank city of Ramallah is Rawabi, an ambitious housing project aspiring to be the first "high-tech city" in Palestine. The project launched in 2007 and is financed to the tune of a billion dollars from the Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar. This coming fall, Rawabi will welcome its first inhabitants to move into state-of-the-art, eco-friendly, high-rise apartment buildings outfitted with solar panels and rooftop rainwater collection systems -- and if all goes according to plan, it will take in 40,000 new inhabitants in the next 10 years. As the largest Palestinian construction project to date, Rawabi has already been a boon to the local economy, providing 4,000 on-site jobs.

The project is the brainchild of the 53-year-old Palestinian multimillionaire Bashar al-Masri, who calls it the first stage of a Marshall Plan for Palestine. The development includes a 5,000-seat outdoor amphitheater for theatrical events and rock concerts, a soccer stadium, two schools, mosques, and churches. Masri (pictured in the photo above) is even planning for a movie megaplex that will screen the latest international films, something unavailable elsewhere in the Palestinian territories. "People will come here from Ramallah. It will be a cultural hub, featuring theater and arts from all over the world," Masri, who confesses a particular fondness for opera, boasts.

One could easily accuse Masri of indulging in the sales hype common to real estate developers around the world. But Masri has something much more ambitious in mind. As long-awaited Palestinian statehood draws closer to realization, notables like Masri are acknowledging that they can't simply wait for their political leaders to do all the work. "For too many years, we've been blaming our situation with the Israelis and the corruption that existed within our own government, without moving forward," he says. "Palestinians need to push ahead despite the occupation and help develop our society, economy, and democracy. We cannot remain tethered to international donors. The day after independence we must have something to show the international community."

He makes a good case. But will conditions in this notoriously volatile corner of the world allow him to make his vision a reality? Though Palestinian leaders continue to press for a full-fledged, genuinely independent state, the likelihood of a peace deal remains elusive. As the failure of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's recent peace initiative demonstrates, tensions in the region are rising. Violence on both sides has increased over the last few months. Over 100 rockets have been fired from Gaza at Israel's southern cities, and Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and incursions in the West Bank have resulted in the deaths of several Palestinians. While some Palestinians may take heart from the unity deal under discussion by the long-warring factions of Fatah and Hamas, Israelis are sure to react with skepticism.

Whatever happens on the path to a new status for Palestinians, members of the far-flung Palestinian diaspora are likely to play a key role -- and Masri's own experience as a member of that diaspora is crucial to any understanding of his lifelong struggle. Growing up as part of a prominent family in the West Bank town of Nablus, he joined anti-Israel protests starting from an early age. "I saw the Israelis throw many of my friends in jail, and I went to jail three times myself," Masri recalls. His father, a doctor, moved the family to the United States in the late 1970s. Masri eventually earned a degree in chemical engineering from Virginia Tech, and soon found himself with a comfortable life and a successful career at a Washington, D.C., consulting company.

But then, in 1993, came the Oslo Peace Accords, which drew Masri back to his homeland. He formed an investment company, Massar International, and used it as the vehicle for a series of ambitious projects around the Middle East. While Oslo foundered, Masri burnished his credentials. He remained in Ramallah, temporarily focusing his efforts on other projects in the region, making millions with major investment projects that included affordable housing in Morocco, commercial and residential developments in Jordan, and a residential and recreational real estate project in Egypt. In 1999, the World Economic Forum named him one of its "Global Leaders of Tomorrow" for regional projects that addressed issues beyond his immediate professional interests.

A running theme in Masri's work on the West Bank has been the use of economic development as an engine of civic consciousness. "The idea is to give Palestinians some hope that we can create more equality, and thereby build a more democratic Palestine from the grassroots level," he says. "It's our responsibility as citizens to help build a model state from scratch, and I'm asking Palestinians from the private sector to help this country move forward."

One of the most intriguing examples of this approach involves the creation of something rather banal: homeowners associations, which do not yet exist in the West Bank. Masri sees the creation of a class of Palestinian homeowners as a small yet significant step toward democracy. As many Palestinians struggle to find affordable homes, Masri argues that home ownership is essential to building a middle class that will help foster the growth of a liberal society. A few years ago, Masri helped lead a successful campaign to create a 25-year mortgage option for homeowners. He also lobbied Palestinian banks, convincing them to reduce down payments (from 25 percent to 10 percent) for first-time homeowners.

Residents of Rawabi will be required to pay into the homeowners associations that preside over every few hundred units. The city will hold elections and form committees through which the representatives can deal with various issues that arise within the communities. The elected representatives will deal with everything from trash cleanup and playground and landscape upkeep to more complex projects, like working with homeowners who want to set up businesses in the neighborhoods. "This is real democracy in practice on a small scale," Masri says. He freely admits that Rawabi alone will not solve the problem of the tens of thousands of low-income families looking for homes; indeed, many may ultimately require some form of government assistance. But Masri hopes that his experiment will make a start, setting a potentially notable example.

And he believes that Rawabi can serve as a salutary example in another way as well. He envisions it as a kind of Palestinian Silicon Valley, one that can prevent the debilitating brain drain of Palestine's highly educated youth, who face an unemployment rate of over 20 percent in the West Bank. Many members of the younger generation have college degrees, says Masri, and he notes that many of them in Ramallah face serious overcrowding and a severe shortage of proper housing. "We have a shortage of over 200,000 homes in Palestine, and it's projected to grow to 400,000 in 10 years. Home ownership is an essential first step to enable our young generation to be free to produce great things for their country."

Masri and his associates are working feverishly to attract the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Google, and other major technology companies. "We really want many of the same high-tech firms that are in Israel and Egypt and Jordan to come," he says, his voice tinged with desperation. But convincing the tech giants that this is the right time to invest is easier said than done.

Their caution is understandable. The impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority is just one of the many complications that make Masri's project seem utopian. Just take the problem of water. Israel controls the supply of water to the West Bank, and the Israelis have repeatedly delayed conclusion of an agreement that would enable the construction of a pipeline to supply Rawabi. That, in turn, has resulted in the repeated postponement of move-in dates for the city's would-be residents.

Nor are the Israelis the only ones making Masri's life difficult. Fellow Palestinians have denounced it as a pet project of the Israelis and Americans. Some even describe it derisively as a "Palestinian settlement," bashing Masri for relying on Israeli supplies, and calling the project a land grab for Masri's personal financial gain. Masri maintains that he has very limited options, and that he's had no choice but to use some Israeli products.

The Palestinian authorities aren't terribly helpful, either. Projects on this scale in other parts of the world often receive government support, but the Palestinian Authority, Masri says, has been very slow to support his initiative. The PA has yet to deliver on a 2008 pledge to supply basic infrastructure in Rawabi, which Masri estimates would cost about $150 million. "There are a lot of reasons why the Authority has moved so slowly: the occupation, Israel's refusal to release tax revenues, the corruption that existed within our own government." Yet he also pleads for understanding, noting that the PA is still "young" and beset with countless problems.

Others aren't quite so forgiving. One former high-level PA official, who spoke on background out of fear of retribution, said that the government has essentially been moribund for years. The last election took place in 2006, he notes, and the Palestinian Parliament met for the last time the year after that. "President [Mahmoud] Abbas is passing laws by presidential decree, and has used the excuse of the split with Hamas for too long," says the former PA staffer. "There's no doubt it's a difficult situation, but this is not a reason for more authoritarian rule. People have been detained for long periods for Facebook status statements against the president. We're at the seven-year mark; this is very dangerous. Palestinian teenagers are growing up, and all they know is this authoritarian-style government."

The former PA representative feels that Palestinians like Masri have no choice but to do what they are doing. "If we're all just going to wait for Hamas and the PA to come together, we'll never move forward with our democracy and economy," the former official added. "Bashar is a leading part of the growing wave of Palestinians who are working around the dysfunction of our government and building our society on their own."

Palestinians suffering from this democratic deficit should expect little help from the United States. After U.S. President Barack Obama's meeting with President Abbas earlier this month, the United States has shown little concern for the Palestinian leaders' disregard for democracy. "Whatever political capital the United States has at this point, it seems they're not willing to dilute the ask by pushing Abbas to revitalize Palestinian institutions and lessen his grip on power," says Rob Danin, a former U.S. diplomat now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. Danin worries that the current dismal state of Palestinian democratic institutions is one of the main obstacles to the success of the process. "We need to reinforce Palestinian beliefs that they have a legitimate leadership, which will in turn build support for the peace process," he says. "Whatever Abbas agrees to, he will have to take back to the Palestinian people. And right now, many Palestinians feel their leaders are moving the ball in the wrong direction."

Yet the obstacles remain formidable. Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who recently published a book about the Palestinian Authority, sums up the current feeling in the West Bank with the word "resignation." "The PA really needs to take practical spaces to open up space for new political parties, voices and positions," he says. "What people like Masri are doing is good for democratic development, but at the end of the day, one has to wonder how much one good example [like Rawabi] can do."

Masri fully appreciates the obstacles that he will have to overcome. He recalls the post-Oslo euphoria, when he expected thousands of Palestinians like him to return to help build a strong democratic Palestine. But it didn't happen that way.

"When I came back in 1994 from the United States, there were only about 100 of us. I was shocked. Today, I would say there are only about 30 of us." But he continues undeterred. He doesn't really see any other alternative.


Democracy Lab

Ukraine's Chocolate King to the Rescue

Ukrainians hope that Petro Poroshenko can lead them out of the current crisis. But can one man provide the solution to all the country's problems?

Petro Poroshenko has a dream. As the 48-year-old Ukrainian business tycoon told journalists earlier this week, he hopes one day to represent his country in the European Parliament -- which was an odd thing to say since Ukraine is not a member of the European Union and has little chance of joining anytime soon. You'd think that Poroshenko would have his mind on a more immediate task: winning election to the presidency in the election scheduled for this coming Sunday, May 25.

Of course, there's a deeper logic to Poroshenko's European aspiration: It echoes the longing for a European future that played a part in the protests that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year. The Euromaidan protests, which were actively and visibly supported by Poroshenko, also vaulted him into the ranks of Ukraine's most popular politicians -- and now to the leading position in this weekend's presidential race. In the run-up to the balloting, eastern Ukraine has been wracked by the worst violence since the political crisis there first erupted earlier this year. On Thursday, at least 13 Ukrainian soldiers were killed by pro-Russian insurgents at a checkpoint 20 miles south of the restive city of Donetsk. The rebel group behind the attack said one of its militants was also killed.

Still, if the vote goes off without a hitch, Poroshenko is so far ahead of his rivals in opinion polls that he could even win in the first round. Last week, a poll put support for him at 54.7 percent among likely voters -- embarrassingly far ahead of opposition bigwig and ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was in second place with 9.6 percent.

To be sure, Poroshenko is no ordinary politician (even in a country that abounds in outsized political personalities). He made his fortune, now estimated by Forbes at $1.3 billion, in the chocolate business -- an unlikely achievement that has led some to dub him "Ukraine's Willy Wonka." That hint of magic befits a man whose followers believe that only he can rescue the country from its current predicament. After he announced his decision to run for president a few weeks ago, a crowd of supporters began to chant his name. "I won't let you down," he told them.

Easier said than done. Winning the presidency is one thing; leading Ukraine out of its crisis is another. Though the Ukrainian media have been speculating about his running for president for months, Poroshenko's strong lead in the polls does come as something of a surprise. When the protests against Yanukovych began in Kiev's central square last year, Poroshenko probably wouldn't have been considered an obvious candidate for future national leadership. Yet his early decision to side with the protesters raised his profile. At the same time, he remained aloof from the three main opposition leaders, all of whom were regarded with various degrees of skepticism by the Euromaidan demonstrators. Poroshenko said the right things but also knew when to stay out of the way.

This ultimately worked to his advantage. The three opposition leaders were left discredited for signing a deal with Yanukovych on Feb. 21, the night before the embattled president fled Kiev, eventually showing up in Russia. (Poroshenko was not among the signatories.) In March, boxer turned politician Vitali Klitschko, who had been the favorite candidate throughout the protests, announced his withdrawal from the race -- and threw his support to the more popular Poroshenko, whose ratings then shot up even further. Poroshenko has since widened his lead over Tymoshenko, who was released from jail the day that Yanukovych fled.

The dramatic developments since then -- first in Crimea and now in Ukraine's east -- have distracted attention from government business in Kiev and pre-election political scheming. Of course, Ukrainians have long been wondering whether the election will actually take place, and now separatist leaders in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk have said they will boycott the vote.

Poroshenko's election slogan, promising no less than "a new way of life," aims to capitalize on the widespread yearning for dramatic reform in the wake of the struggle against Yanukovych. "A new country was born and a new people was born," he told Reuters in a recent interview. Referring to the casualties incurred during the protest, he added that Ukraine's future leaders "should know why 104 people gave their lives." It's a line that echoes the mood of dissatisfaction among people who backed the protests, who wonder why more than 100 protesters died for the sake of change that is yet to come.

But can Poroshenko deliver? Ukraine is not the same country it was during the Orange Revolution of 2004: Society has evolved dramatically, even if Tymoshenko's famed hairstyle has remained the same. Yet there is also something distinctly anachronistic about Poroshenko, whose political career dates back to 1998. Despite his reformist ambitions, one risk of a Poroshenko presidency is that Ukraine could end up with business as usual -- at just the moment when the country urgently needs decisive leadership and wide-reaching reform. Some Ukrainian commentators have wondered whether the current demand for fresh leaders will be enough to make people forget Poroshenko's dubious political moves in the past.

Despite his recent support for Yanukovych's opponents, Poroshenko actually has a long history with the former president's political machine, the Party of Regions. In 2000, the "Chocolate King," as Poroshenko is also known, was one of the founders of a party that ultimately evolved into the current Party of Regions. Later, though, he crossed over to the government as a protégé of President Viktor Yushchenko (the victor of the Orange Revolution and a man who also promised wide-ranging democratic reforms). Poroshenko eventually served as Yushchenko's foreign minister from  2009 to 2010. After the Orange camp disintegrated, torn apart by internal conflicts, Poroshenko was back with his former colleagues from the Party of Regions, with Yanukovych -- who was president by then -- giving him a ministerial portfolio. At the time, one Ukrainian weekly compared Poroshenko's shift back to his old colleagues to the return of a prodigal son.

Poroshenko is now vowing to transform Ukrainian politics. Rivalries have plagued the pro-democratic forces for years, stalling reforms and playing into the hands of Yanukovych and, indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin. In this sense, Poroshenko has presented his alliance with Klitschko as a new style of politics, not just a way to win the election. "From the times of King Yaroslav, from the times of King Volodymyr, there was a harsh contest for power that divided the country," he said when announcing their cooperation in April. "We have decided to put an end to this tradition." To drive home the point, he noted the "historic" nature of his alliance with Klitschko, which runs against the recent grain of Ukraine's notoriously fractious political environment -- at least for now.

All this sounds promising enough -- except that Poroshenko's own track record here is not great. His rivalry with Tymoshenko split the pro-democratic "Orange" camp following the Orange Revolution, when they vied for the position of prime minister. (Yushchenko has since said that he made a mistake appointing Tymoshenko to the prime ministership and that Poroshenko was the better prepared of the two.) Now the two political veterans are confronting each other in the current presidential race. Poroshenko has tried to persuade her not to run, so far unsuccessfully. He has also called for the weaker candidates -- those with less than 3 or 5 percent -- to withdraw from the race and back him so that he can win in the first round.

But will Tymoshenko play along? She originally declared that she would stay out of the way if Poroshenko wins. Now she seems to have changed her mind, pledging to start a new revolution if she loses the election. (Her critics periodically remind her that the Maidan demonstrators didn't take to the streets to free her from prison, much less to facilitate her return to politics.) "I know all those people," she has said dismissively of Poroshenko and his team, implying that they have murky biographies. As the polls show, however, Ukrainians seem more convinced by Poroshenko.

Poroshenko has also vowed that one of his first moves will be to dismantle Ukraine's oligarchic system. He has pledged to get rid of the "uncompetitive, corrupt benefits" the old authorities created for "families" of businessmen and has promised "zero tolerance for corruption." This is also a message to voters. In one recent poll, 51 percent of respondents put "untainted by corruption" at the top of the list of criteria they'd like to see in the country's future president.

Needless to say, this is just what Ukraine needs -- but these are strange words, coming from someone who made his career, and his fortune, in just the environment he now condemns. Eight years ago, when Poroshenko took a senior political position in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution, analyst Andreas Umland considered the ironies entailed by replacing old oligarchs with new ones. Fast-forward to 2014, and another revolution in Kiev, and that assessment remains current.

The wealth of Ukraine's seventh-richest man (and richest lawmaker) is not so much a problem in itself -- though it does jar with the widely circulated images of the opulent mansions of Yanukovych and his cronies. Yet Poroshenko's fans don't seem to mind too much. I asked a doctor smoking a cigarette on the edge of Kiev's Independence Square if Poroshenko's wealth bothered her. (She had just finished singing his praises.) "The family made its money with their chocolate factories, you know," she shrugged, as if she were talking about the local corner shop.

Poroshenko's assets are not limited to the confectionary business; they also include a stake in the media. Several observers have suggested that his popularity has been boosted by his ownership of Channel 5, a popular TV station that backed the protests. "Poroshenko can't say that he is any different from Firtash or Akhmetov, for whom the media is an instrument in the political struggle," wrote journalist Sergii Leshchenko in a recent column. Poroshenko has said that he will sell Roshen, his chocolate brand, if he becomes president, but has no intention of selling Channel 5 (to some observers' dismay). Why? "Because this channel two times saved the country, and, reason number two, because the channel is not for sale," he has said.

And even if Poroshenko is serious about taking on the oligarchs, the reality is that this is a moment when the new leadership in Kiev may need their support more than ever. The new government may yet seek to harness the clout of oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man and formerly Yanukovych's closest ally, who last week deployed workers from his steel plant to restore order in the southeastern city of Mariupol and other East Ukrainian cities, pushing the pro-Russian militants there into the background.

If anything, a President Poroshenko could use his mandate to push for closer economic relations between Ukraine and the European Union. He already has a reputation as a victim of Moscow's economic bullying: Russia banned his confectionary brand Roshen last summer and took over one of its factories in Russia. In March, Ukraine finally signed the political section of the EU association agreement that Yanukovych dropped in November 2013, sparking the protests in Kiev. The economic section of the agreement is yet to be signed, but Štefan Füle, the EU's Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, has said that it could be signed after the Ukrainian election. That would put the ball in Poroshenko's court, testing both his commitment to European integration and his capacity for working with Russia.

But talks with Brussels are just one of the challenges confronting Ukraine's next president. He still faces a restive Maidan: not just the people who remain physically on Independence Square, but the broader public opinion nurtured by the protests, which mistrusts politicians. Poroshenko is not wholly immune to this either: A video released last month, viewed more than 125,000 times on YouTube, contrasts his icy response to journalists' questions with his earlier promises on the Maidan.

Then there is the unrest in the east, which leaders in Kiev -- including Poroshenko -- have struggled to counter. This weekend, Poroshenko announced that one of his first moves if elected will be to establish a Ministry for Crimean Affairs, adding that its mission will include "coordinating actions after Crimea's return." This is what many in Ukraine want to hear. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Poroshenko has the means to make it happen.

Polls suggest that Poroshenko has his share of supporters even in the East. 29 percent of likely voters in the East say that they'll be voting for him, and 43 percent in the South -- miles ahead of the candidates with traditional links to those areas, including those from the Party of Regions. (In central and western Ukraine, by comparison, those favoring him number 60 and 67 percent respectively.)

This level of support adds to the hope that Poroshenko can provide a rallying point for the millions of Ukrainians -- from Lviv in the West to Dnipropetrovsk in the East and possibly beyond -- who want to maintain the country's unity. But even so, it will take more than the "golden ticket" of a Poroshenko victory -- whether this weekend or in a second round in June -- to sort out the country's problems.