Mideast ‘infected’ by democracy Palestinians have ingredients for change, some say
By Gregg Zoroya
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Far up the narrow alleyways of the congested Dheishah refugee camp here, beyond where Palestinian boys with slingshots stand ready to defy Israeli patrols enforcing a curfew, a group of Palestinians gathers to talk democracy.
The dozen men and women are independent activists and affiliated with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah, brought together by a Palestinian grass-roots program called Civic Forum that regularly sponsors such meetings. As cigarette smoke clouds the air in the cinder-block basement of moderator Raji Odeh’s home, they rage against Israel and the United States.
Odeh cuts through the acrimony with a question: “What comes to our mind when we think of the word ‘democracy?’ ” Rapid-fire answers come from around the room: freedom of speech, free elections, rule of law, government of the people, multiparty systems. “We have to accept democracy, and integrate it into our culture” says Fared Attrach, 27, a civil rights lawyer who dodged Israeli troops to get here.
Not a single Arab nation today has a fully functioning democracy, say independent groups that assess the state of democracy around the world. Yet the Palestinians, immersed in turmoil, are under global pressure led by the United States to form a democracy in a region where inherited fiefdoms and dictatorships are the rule.
In June, President Bush called on Palestinians “to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty.” All good things will flow from this, he said: peace, prosperity and independence.
Observers say the foundation for a new representative government and freer society already is in place in the West Bank and Gaza. They say Palestinians — because they are better educated, with a higher literacy rate than other Arab populations — are well positioned to embrace democracy.
“They have the right ingredients, if any (Arab) people possesses the ingredients, for the emergence of democracy,” says Owen Kirby, Middle East director for the International Republican Institute, an organization in Washington that promotes democracy.
Hunger for democracy
The Palestinians’ proximity to Israel’s Western-style democracy has given them a sense of what they are missing. They see Knesset (parliament) debates on television and follow the party compromises in their newspapers. Surveys show that despite hostility toward Israel, Palestinians give its parliamentary democracy high marks. “We are infected,” says Palestinian legislator and Fatah leader Hussam Khader, 40, considered a potential challenger to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
But Palestinians say that under current conditions — a cycle of aggression with militants launching suicide attacks, followed by Israeli retaliation — it is impossible to discuss, much less implement, changes. “We can’t have ballot boxes next to (Israeli) tanks,” says Hatem Abdel Qader, also a Palestinian legislator and Fatah leader.
Even so, there is evidence that beneath the turmoil, there is a desire for change. Surveys taken two weeks before Bush’s speech show that nearly three-fifths of Palestinians want immediate changes. A more recent survey of 1,200 Palestinians, concluded early this month by Birzeit University in conjunction with the International Republican Institute, found that most Palestinians would vote against municipal leaders appointed by Arafat’s government.
“We have to confront all those who are corrupt,” says Dheishah refugee camp official Mohammad Lahan, 46, at the meeting there. “We have to be straightforward and speak out loudly.”
During the first and only elections for leadership in the West Bank and Gaza in 1996, 80% of the Palestinians turned out to vote. “What does that tell you? Everybody was hungry for democracy,” says Eyad Sarraj, 58, a Gaza psychiatrist and civic activist.
Khader doubts change can be achieved under Arafat or any of the current Palestinian leadership, widely viewed as corrupt. He calls them a mafia. Israel’s military intelligence chief told parliament that Arafat, whose people have been left destitute by the 2-year-old uprising, has a personal fortune of about $1.3 billion. The Palestinian Authority dismissed the claim Wednesday as an attempt to discredit Arafat.
Many here say Arafat’s style of governing must end. “Just to elect a dictator every five years is not a democracy,” says Mark Heller, political analyst at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center.
Arafat has promised to hold elections early next year, but he has not said whether he will run again. And if he does, will he share power?
“He is the problem, and he is the solution,” Qader says.
Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, is pushing to revamp the Palestinian government into a parliamentary system with a prime minister as chief executive, an idea increasingly popular in the West Bank and Gaza.
Shikaki argues that a parliament, where opposing parties reach peaceful consensus to form governments, would have a moderating effect on contentious factions such as Hamas and Fatah.
There is speculation that Arafat might pre-empt such an idea by appointing a prime minister, someone who would handle daily operations while Arafat holds ultimate power.
True democracy has proven elusive ever since the Palestinian Authority, which had limited control over the West Bank and Gaza, was established by peace agreements in 1993 and Arafat overwhelmingly won the elections in 1996. Two years later, follow-up elections were postponed indefinitely, partly because there were signs an independent state would be established. Analysts say voting patterns might have shown growing dissatisfaction with Arafat.
With pressure for democratization mounting, Arafat has signed a “Basic Law” passed by legislators five years ago. It codifies the separation of the legislative and executive branches, possibly limiting his authority.
Even though Arafat won leadership of the Palestinian Authority with 88% of the vote in 1996, the Birzeit University survey shows Arafat’s positive rating at 35%. Nonetheless, in that same survey, 55% said they would vote for Arafat in any upcoming election. Analysts say that may be partly a reaction to Bush’s call for new leadership.
“Everything Bush has said was right. The only problem is that he said it,” explains Sarraj, the Gaza psychiatrist. “I believe that Arafat is a dictator and that his regime is lousy, corrupt and stupid, has no vision, no strategy, no plans for peace, no plans for war. Nothing. A system of chaos and corruption, nepotism, tribalism, you name it. But that is left for us to change.”
The risks of change
A true call for democratic change is a gamble, says Rashid Khalidi, a Middle East expert at the University of Chicago. “A democratic Palestinian Authority probably would be doing and saying a lot of things that Israel and the United States wouldn’t want,” he says.
On Wednesday, Hussam Nazal, 41, announced plans to run for the presidency after meeting with the spiritual leader of Hamas, the radical Islamic group that has claimed responsibility for many attacks in Israel. An academic with no political experience and the fourth candidate in the race against Arafat, Nazal said he would abolish the Palestinian Authority and declare a republic if elected.
This week, 13 Palestinian groups, including Hamas, have been meeting in Gaza City to try to unify their leadership before the planned elections. They have been working on a document that would help create a single approach to the resistance against Israel. Efforts by Arafat’s Fatah faction to get the groups to agree to a cease-fire reportedly were rejected by the more extreme groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
In his Gaza living room, Hamas political leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi ponders Bush’s call for free and open elections — and smiles. The militant Islamic fundamentalist group may put forward its own candidates if elections are held.
“You believe that Bush really means it?” Rantisi asks. “Bush will be happy to see, for example, Hamas as a leader for the Palestinians? (Bush) will not accept or encourage (true) democracy.”
Fatah, founded as a revolutionary organization by Arafat in the 1950s, is a secular alternative to Hamas and controls 53 of the 88 legislative seats. Recent polls show support for Fatah and Hamas roughly the same at 22% each.
The Washington-based National Democratic Institute has been working here to democratize Fatah, encouraging leaders like legislator Khader. “He’s not corrupt. He’s not a guy who’s enriched himself. He works hard on behalf of his constituents,” says Les Campbell, the institute’s Middle East director.
Khader says that by reforming Fatah, by establishing an elected leadership and party discipline, younger members such as himself could vote out many of Arafat’s team, and maybe Arafat himself. “We should concentrate on a new generation,” Khader says.Top