Egyptian Waves in Palestine

"How to forge legitimacy" by Mahmoud Abbas

The democratic tsunami in the Middle East that started in Tunisia and gained incredible momentum in Egypt is now inundating the cities of Sudan, Algeria, Yemen, Iran, Bahrain, and Jordan. Is it possible that the revolutions and protests that are “plaguing” the Middle East will reach Palestine? The Palestinian Authority, much like Israel, was initially very disturbed by the uprising in Egypt, with president Abbas calling Mubarak to offer support before the fall of the latter and shutting down peaceful rallies supporting the Egyptian people. Yet, somehow, the day after Mubarak resigned, flags and posters were put up across Ramallah’s Manara Square celebrating the downfall, a clear attempt by the PA to land on the right side of history. The wavering stance of the PA on Egypt embraces quite tightly the wavering legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority. Will the wave of pro-democracy movements, directly or indirectly, collapse on Palestine?

Aware of the questionable legitimacy of the PA (who won the last elections?), the PA dissolved the cabinet headed by Salam Fayyed (though he was immediately reappointed) and called for a new set of elections. These moves, particularly, the call for elections, demonstrate a fear that the democratic popular movement could bring itself to Ramallah; yet can these promises of democracy be considered legitimate? The last time that the Palestinian Authority called for elections, they were largely farcical, with nearly all candidates from the Fatah party. Despite including only Fatah candidates (and a handful of independents and others), Fatah cancelled the elections due to disorganization. In addition to being a manifestation of the “I’ll believe it when I see it” adage, the upcoming elections will once again be largely a hollow process of legitimization for the Fatah-led PA as Hamas has refused to take part in the elections. While Hamas is hardly the Palestinian Ghonim to Fatah’s Suleiman, it still retains de jure legitimacy from the last elections.  In addition to being expunged from the West Bank (as Fatah is from Gaza) – hardly ideal circumstances for fair elections – Hamas maintains that Fayyad’s government is illegal and holds national reconciliation to be more important than elections.

To return to the original question, Hussein Ibish (as does Haaretz) logically argues that the call for elections is an indirect consequence of the Egyptian uprising; an attempt to preempt a similar occurrence in the West Bank. While this is undoubtedly true, Ibish – who is an unabashed believer in the immortality of the two-state solution – seems to believe that these elections represent a clear and honest step towards democracy for the Palestinian government of the West Bank. Ibish is hypersensitive to the reasons why Hamas is rejecting the elections – and makes some fair points:

In fact the onus for the lack of elections lies with Hamas, which most predictably has rejected the new election plans as “a conspiracy against the Palestinian people.” Hamas rejected plans for elections in January 2010 under Palestinian law and an Egyptian proposal that would have allowed for elections last July. Its position was that national reconciliation had to precede elections. This was a ploy designed to cover up for the fact that the organization, quite reasonably, feared the results of Palestinian voting under the present circumstances.

The logic was tortured, since there are no other means to clarify the will of the Palestinian people or to set the stage for national reconciliation and define on whose terms reconciliation will largely be based. It was a dodge, designed to avoid elections whose results would almost certainly have been unfavorable to Hamas, following more than two years of freefalling political credibility, at least among Palestinians…

It is, of course, vital that elections actually be held. It will also be important to give opposition groups, including Hamas, a serious opportunity to put forward candidates and campaign.

While emphasis should be placed on the last sentence, Ibish prefers to focus on the obstacles to democracy put up by Hamas. Certainly, Hamas is rejecting elections because the group fears a poor performance, but considering the intensity of the Fatah crackdown in the West Bank, it is hardly surprising that a group that will predictably be unable to freely campaign in the West Bank should fear poor results. Yet Ibish seems to be content with offering the declining popularity of Hamas as a reason for rejecting elections – though, interestingly, it is tough to say whose popularity is in more of a free fall, that of Hamas or that of Abbas’s Fatah  (highlighted by the Palestine Papers).

The impetus for Palestinian elections is clear. Abbas, Fayyad and the rest of the Palestinian Authority are desperate to earn some sense of legitimacy now that imposing – and imposed – dictators have become taboo in the PM world (Post-Mubarak). Yet elections without opposition are little more than an exercise in legal acrobatics to construct a straw crown of democracy to place on the head of Abbas. One party elections are a cheap show after which American politicians and pundits and crow about the righteousness of an anachronistic Palestinian Authority that actively indulges the Israeli occupation. Ibish is clear that democracy is important and necessary for a functional and legitimate Palestinian state (or government), yet he seems unable to grasp that the proposed Palestinian elections will more closely resemble the scripted Egyptian elections of the past 30 years than any free and fair elections of true democracies.

Photo from the delightfully absurd llphFreedom website

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