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Palestine: Uncertain times
There is little doubt that Palestinians now face huge challenges after the passing of President Yasser Arafat who held important and sensitive positions in both the resistance and the contemporary Palestinian political system. Most importantly, he has been a revolutionary icon and symbol of the Palestinian national struggle for the past 40 years.
Arafat did not name any successor nor did he appoint a deputy. After his death, his positions have been distributed according to the charters of each institution he led: the Fateh Central Committee elected Farouq Qaddoumi as head of the movement while the PLO's executive committee elected its treasurer, Mahmoud Abbas, as its new head. Ahmad Qrei' remained as prime minister and was also given authority over the National Security Council, of which Arafat was head. Meanwhile, Speaker of Parliament, Rawhi Fatouh was granted the responsibility of interim president of the Palestinian Authority for a period of 60 days in accordance with the PA's Basic Law, and just hours after assuming his post Fatouh announced that presidential elections would be held on January 9.
All of these changes happened in the course of two days and were considered an impressively smooth and calm transition of authority to many. But now, after the official ceremonies and protocols have ended, the question remains, has the political and leadership vacuum left by the president been filled?
Many believe that no leader can ever take the place of Abu Ammar or cross the red lines that he drew: East Jerusalem, the refugee issue, holding armed militias accountable or halting armed resistance under American or Israeli conditions.
Palestinians are in agreement, however, that the passing of their legendary leader will leave behind major changes on the political scene and also influence the work of institutions. And even if the Palestinians - whether those in the Authority, official or national institutions or political parties and factions, were able to smoothly get past the first phase, the fact still remains that they all have many difficult and unpredictable challenges ahead.
In a November 21 Al Quds column, Khader Abu Abara set the context for the new leadership. Internally, he wrote, "there is the spark for confrontation among the centers of power, especially in Fateh, in an attempt to take control over decision making and political influence."
Externally, Abu Abara pointed to the election of a second term for the "hawks" in America, and he reminded his readers that this is a government that exports wars and relies on preventative strikes in the context of its war on terror. Here, international legitimacy is absent and Security Council resolutions are disregarded.
The third challenge now faced by the Palestinian national movement, he continued, is the pressure from Arab countries, which have found an opportunity in Arafat's death to distance themselves from the crisis created by the Intifada and avoid confronting the US position towards the conflict. The Arab regimes have come under increased popular pressure to take more radical positions in confronting the Israeli aggression and American bias, he wrote.
Of these, the first is the most pressing for ordinary people. Some fear conflict erupting between different power centers and various interest groups, which have multiplied over the past 10 years since the inception of the PA. Cabdriver Abu Mutaz Matar, 55, says he expects liquidations to take place, especially between the various wings in Fateh - those who benefited from the presence of President Arafat and those, too caught up in the resistance, who did not.
In an unprecedented letter to the leadership, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades specified its priorities for the post-Arafat phase. These revolved around 10 demands, all of which are related to fighting corruption and setting straight the internal and organizational situation of Fateh and the PA. The Brigades also called for the disclosure and publication of the reasons for Arafat's death.
Abul Amin, an activist in the Aqsa Brigades, which has changed its name to the Martyr Yasser Arafat Brigades, says, "The martyr and leader [Arafat] always used to postpone holding corrupt people accountable, even if he would always call them scum. He said they would pass with the passing of the phase, but here they are, after his death, manipulating and toying with our people and their potentials."
The letter, which was published on November 16 after extensive discussions within the Brigades that included its cadres in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, actually named 10 people who still hold important positions in official social and financial institutions and in the late president's office. They called for serious investigations into these and other unnamed officials in civil society institutions. They also called for a complete review of all the higher echelons in the Authority and PLO departments and an evaluation of their professional performance. This, said the statement, was because it was not reasonable to keep "illiterate, unqualified and ignorant people in high ranking positions in embassies, public administration and ministries."
At the political level, the Brigades called for the new leadership to declare a clear position on certain political initiatives such as the Geneva Initiative in which Yasser Abed Rabbo, PLO executive committee member is a partner along with Israeli leftist Yossi Beilin, or the People's Voice, where Dr. Sari Nusseibeh partners Ami Ayalon, former Israeli security chief.
The most critical part of the letter, however, is the demand that the leadership in one month should reap tangible and quick results or else the Brigades would "with their guns, put a stop to all cases of corruption and we will take the law into our own hands. We will carry out public revolutionary trials and we will set up gallows in public squares for all to see."
Observers say that the letter, which addressed Abbas, Qrei', Qaddoumi, Fatouh and Zanoun (head of the Palestine National Council in exile) as historical leaders, will add new burdens on an already exhausted leadership to organize Fateh and rein in the lack of security, guarantee order and the rule of law.
They also say the priorities set in the letter entails a summarized political and organizational program that those addressed cannot possibly tackle quickly even if they wanted to, especially given the short time constraint given to carry it out.
Time plays a decisive role for the new leadership, which will remain temporary until elections are conducted. The letter came in tandem with the new leadership's efforts to prepare the scene for their candidate, Abu Mazen, for presidential elections, and some say this indicates that the Brigades would most likely prefer another candidate from the younger Fateh generation.
Nasser Jumaa', Israel's number one wanted man in the Nablus area and one of the Aqsa Brigades' local leaders told the Palestine Report that, "if we could have a say in this, we would prefer Marwan Barghouti. He is one of the leaders who has been involved in the Intifada leadership and the resistance."
But, he added, "we prefer that the democratic process and ballot boxes take their course."
Qaddoura Fares, one of Fateh's most prominent members of the so-called new guard said in an interview with Al Ayyam on November 16, that "if the choice of a Fateh candidate is limited to the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council, then we will not accept the results. We will put forth our own candidate, Marwan Barghouti. We, the younger generation, are not represented in the Central Committee or the Revolutionary Council, therefore, we will not be part of the decision."
Fares proposes that for the sake of Fateh's unity, the movement's candidate should be chosen by way of the regional conferences, in which there are between 60,000-70,000 members.
Zuhair Dubei, 55, an imam and activist in the field of human rights and civil liberties, says that following Arafat's death, Palestinians need to exercise wisdom and unified action to end what he calls the "tribal rule" that has been running society since 1917. "Tribes do not have the ability to confront the Zionist project, which is based on an institutional approach."
Dubei continues: "We are victims of the occupation in the first, second and third places but we are also victims of mismanagement and poor leadership in the fourth, fifth and sixth places. However, we are able to turn this sad and colossal event [Arafat's death] around into a positive and promising event. We have trust in our generations and in our great minds. We are not a sterile people, our mothers are not barren. Our people are able to bear leaders of the same caliber as Yasser Arafat."
Abdel Sattar Qassem, professor of political science at Al Najah University denies that Arafat was ever a charismatic leader. He says charisma entails leaving achievements behind after you are gone. "Arafat did not leave any achievements," he says. "After he died, there was only a huge political vacuum and a group of centers of power with militias, each flexing its muscles in order to win a place in the leadership. This method is undemocratic and cannot be accepted by the people."
Qassem has always been a persistent critic of the Palestinian Authority and Arafat's method of governance. In 1995, he was injured by four bullets, "because of my criticism of the PA," he says.
He was arrested several times by both the Palestinians and the Israelis and Israel has banned him from traveling for the past 20 years.
Qassem says it is of the utmost importance for the post-Arafat political system that the monopolization of the PA is dismantled. "The PA should not be a monopoly for anyone," he says. "The factions should not monopolize the PA or political activity [in general]. The major factions are condescending - the people are much larger than any faction. So, the way to break this monopolization is through the people - through conducting elections."
Both Fatah and the Palestinian opposition face problems coming up with a Presidential candidate who can unite their forces, Khaled Amayreh reports
After days of internal haggling, Fatah Central Committee has decided unanimously to nominate Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for President of the Palestinian Authority in the upcoming presidential elections slated for 9 January.
The nomination is expected to be approved by Fatah's revolutionary council and other similar bodies today.
It is not clear if the nomination of Abu Mazen was coordinated with Marwan Barghouti, the less experienced but more popular Fatah secretary-general who is currently serving five consecutive life imprisonment terms in an Israeli goal for masterminding the Palestinian Intifada against the occupation.
Earlier this week, Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, obtained a nomination application form for her husband, suggesting that he was planning to announce his candidacy. Moreover, Fatah's armed wing, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, announced that it would back Barghouti should he decide to nominate himself. This suggests that Fatah, a heterogeneous organisation, is not really unanimous in choosing Abu Mazen to succeed Arafat.
Nonetheless, Palestinian sources intimated that the Fatah Old Guard, including PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, were engaged in "intensive contacts" with Barghouti through his lawyer. The purpose of this dialogue was to convince Barghouti to step down, on the grounds that he is still "a young man and that he has the future before him".
According to the same sources, Barghouti was also promised that intensive efforts would be made to get Israel to free him.
Indeed, PA Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath revealed on Monday that he had asked visiting Secretary of State Colin Powell to exert pressure on Israel to release Barghouti. Powell, who is soon to leave office, met with PA officials in Jericho this week, where he voiced his support for the organisation of elections. Earlier, Powell had received assurances from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel would "facilitate" the elections. It was far from clear, however, whether such "facilitation" would involve the withdrawal of the Israeli occupation forces from Palestinian population centres.
Meanwhile, as many as seven candidates have so far announced their intention to stand in the 9 January poll.
One of the candidates is Mustafa Barghouti, a well-known political activist and distant cousin of Marwan Barghouti.
Mustafa Barghouti told Al-Ahram Weekly that he would seek to form a centrist coalition to prevent the recurrence of an "Oslo-like disaster" -- an allusion to the failure of the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO.
Earlier, five Palestinian leftist and secular groups, including the People's Party (Communist), the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP & DFLP), the Palestine Democratic Union (Feda), and the Popular Struggle Front, had decided to nominate former Legislative Council member Haidar Abdul-Shafi to run for president.
However, the elderly Gaza figure declined the invitation, citing his poor health and old age.
Abdul-Shafi reportedly recommended that the Democratic Coalition, as the five leftist groups now call themselves, choose Mustafa Barghouti as their candidate.
Barghouti, though popular and widely respected, is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to Abu Mazen, especially if Fatah stands solidly behind him.
His erstwhile affiliation with the Communist-oriented Palestine People's Party, which enjoys relatively little popularity among Palestinians, is likely to militate against his success at the polls.
Barghouti may well seek to enhance his chances by trying to secure the explicit or tacit backing of the wide sectors of Palestinian society which are disenchanted by Abu Mazen's overly dovish attitudes.
Another important presidential hopeful is Abdul-Sattar Qasem, professor of political science at Al-Najah University, who was the first to announce his candidacy.
Qasem told the Weekly that he was the only candidate to have a detailed, written platform, which includes a commitment to preserve and defend the right of return for Palestinian refugees as well as to put up a determined war against corruption.
Qasem hopes to woo "the Islamic forces", "true nationalists", and "disgruntled Fatah supporters" who do not give Abu Mazen the benefit of the doubt and favour a strong and uncompromising stance on such issues as the status of Jerusalem, the right of return and the need to eliminate all Jewish settlements from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
In the meantime, Hamas, the powerful Islamic resistance group, has indicated that the movement might decide to support a certain "candidate" if his positions were agreeable to the movement.
In an interview with the Weekly, Hamas spokesman in the West Bank Hassan Yousuf, said the movement was studying its options.
"This a crucial phase of our national struggle, and taking a passive or indifferent stance towards the elections undermines the interests of both the Palestinian people and the Islamic movement."
Yousuf, who has just been released from an Israeli prison after spending 28 months behind bars for his association with Hamas's political organisation, argued that it was only logical that Hamas should choose the best possible, or least disagreeable, candidate.
"If a candidate declares that he is committed to true democracy, and if he pledges to defend the paramount national issues, then it would be foolish not to support him. Not supporting him would only help other candidates, who might compromise the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."
Yousuf dismissed the PA stance that, according to the law, a presidential election must take place within 60 days from the time the president of the PA dies or is declared senile or unable to perform his constitutional powers.
"Is this law a Quranic injunction?" Yousuf queried. "The term of the legislative council expired four years ago, but the council is still functioning, and nobody is invoking the law."
Earlier, Hamas and other Palestinian factions urged the PA leadership to designate a date for legislative and local elections.
However, the PA argued that it would be impossible to organise general elections within 60 days, and pledged to set a date for legislative and municipal elections very soon.
Hamas, however, seems unsure and does not trust the PA's intentions.
"We are afraid that 'very soon' will turn into an open-ended postponement, in which case the PA would replace Arafat's autocracy with a new form of dictatorship," one Hamas official told the Weekly.
The Palestinian Legislative Council has begun making changes in the electoral system. One should expect that those members of the Legislative Council would have learned from mistakes made during the 1996 elections. Again, because of party politics the electoral system has been designed to favor the ruling party, namely, Fatah. The number of members will be expanded to 124 members, with half of these elected on a regional basis and the remainder on national basis. This would make it more difficult for the opposition, and easier for Fatah, to get their candidates elected on a national ticket.
The January 1996 elections were far from being competitive between political parties. The electoral system was designed to strengthen and consolidate the already empowered Palestinian Authority and its political support base in Fatah. The institutional choice of a district-system in combination of a majority system made it virtually impossible for candidates of the smaller factions, who decided to participate in the elections, to be elected.