|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
20 - 26 August 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
What cabinet reshuffle?
Yasser Arafat's announcement of a new cabinet was a combination of tragedy and comedy. Every single one of the ministers who had been under a cloud for incompetence and corruption was kept, as if in defiance of the Legislative Council's report of the year before. The very same people known notoriously to have misspent funds, indulged in corrupt practices, and mixed their personal business with the people's business were reinstated arrogantly; the meaning of this was that Arafat was telling his people that, no matter what crimes and misdemeanours these ministers were responsible for, so long as he, Yasser Arafat, wanted them around him, they would stay around him.
To make matters worse, instead of changing the character of his cabinet, Arafat decided to do what he has always done, though never before so visibly and defiantly -- expand the cabinet with an extra set of ten cronies, co-optable men who would do his bidding. It is to the credit of Hanan Ashrawi and Abdel-Jawad Saleh that they refused to serve in so debased a cabinet; I was also pleased that Salah Tamari, a member of Fatah, refused the position of minister without portfolio for the fraud that such a position was.
But what the designations of ministers and ministries as announced by Arafat tell is a story of a people without hope and without a sense that change can occur. To accept service in the cabinet of an Authority that has been unable to deliver peace, that has been unable to stop land expropriation and house demolitions, that has been openly running monopolies and illegal businesses, that has abused its own citizens, that has been unwilling to pass even a Basic Law merely because the supreme authority, Yasser Arafat, doesn't wish to be inhibited by so inconvenient a set of restraints as laws -- all this testifies to despair and, alas, the desire to get in on the action, to try and join Arafat and company in their mismanagement and corruption.
Arafat's gift, as I have said before, is to appeal to the worst in his people. He rules by cliques and cronies, by mafias and little gangs. He is surrounded by yes-men and sycophants who tell him what he likes to hear and, after thirty years of doing business this way, he is not going to change. Besides, he has noticed that his people -- despite complaints from the Legislative Council and a few courageous and independent individuals -- simply accept every new outrage and failure he commits and keep venerating and respecting him. So why should he change? The people he brought from Tunis, who effectively did what they did in Beirut before they did the same thing in Tunis, make it impossible for him to hear anything except flattery and agreement. Their jobs depend on his pleasure, not on their objective performance. Ever since the days of Amman and, after that, Beirut, the PLO's style of doing things has been by improvisation -- nothing is studied beforehand, no preparation is undertaken, people whisper in his ear, and he controls everything through his power of the purse. While that may have been understandable in Lebanon, it has absolutely nothing to do with dealing with the Israelis or, more important, with building the basis of a state.
Consider also that Arafat and his men, those who serve him despite corruption and incompetence, belong to a sort of outcast group of refugees and itinerants who, like Arafat himself, have never lived what could be called a normal citizen's life. They have gotten used to traveling with diplomatic passports, they ride first class, they have access to large amounts of unearned money, and they are answerable to no one except Arafat.
And Arafat himself has never led a normal life at all. He has never taken his children to school in the morning, never paid taxes, never had to live according to the law, never had to worry about his job or paying rent -- that is, doing what the ordinary citizen living in a stable society has to do. In a situation like that for 35 years, Arafat and his people have accustomed themselves to a life lived outside the law, in which relying on institutions, laws, and the common concerns of everyday life do not count for anything at all. All that matters is preserving the structure of authority and compliance that arose originally during "the revolution" but has remained well past its death. The result is a shambles, a mess so far as building civil society and civil institutions are concerned. Arafat himself has no idea what those things are.
The tragedy of this is that it derives from homelessness and exile. One of the main consequences of 1948 which lives on in the present is that both Israeli and Palestinian people live in a condition of distortion. For Israelis, their mania for security, their chauvinism, their inability to regard what they have done to Palestinians as anything worth thinking about, their defensiveness, the absence of an Israeli constitution, the fact that Israel is not the state of its citizens but of the whole Jewish people, and many other things have produced a society that is unlike any other on earth. The irony is that one of Herzl's dreams was that Zionism should produce a state for Jews that would make them a "normal" people. The opposite is true. Far from normal, they are now simply not accepted in the area, despite being an advanced European or Western state.
For Palestinians, the distortions of a destroyed society and a totally dispossessed people are very deep also. We have accepted conditions of life under our rulers that no other people would have accepted. We have no experience of permanence; loyalty is much more important than institutions; we don't easily understand the meaning of belonging. Above all, because so many of us are refugees, under occupation, or second-class citizens in Israel and Arab states, our notion of the future is basically tomorrow, not a long-range time period for which we can build, plan, educate and implement. Connected to all this is our factionalism; we have never succeeded in building a movement that is unified around one or two simple goals. Ours change all the time. Every time Arafat says that he is making the last concession, he makes several new ones.
I think that Arafat's cabinet shuffle has to be seen in that context, as the action of a man who knows how to do nothing except stir up the old pot with the old mix. The thing that bothers and amazes me is that he has gotten away with it. A few people complain, but by and large the population accepts this situation of corruption re-appointing corruption as normal. Here, it seems to me, the Palestinian diaspora along with those Palestinian-Israelis who are struggling for the rights of citizenship have the same goal in common. We need to shift the bases of our struggle now away from the long-moribund peace process -- by which Arafat assures his centrality, even though he has done nothing at all, repeat, nothing at all to stop the expropriation of our land or the demolition of our houses -- towards institutions like schools and universities, health cooperatives, vocational schools, and above all support for groups inside the Occupied Territories who are willing to stake a stand against Israeli settlements.
We are now at another phase of our crisis. I'm afraid that no Saladin will appear to rescue us, no Abdel-Nasser, no shining hero. The solution, even on the very modest level I have been discussing, has to be the detailed work on building institutions that are not dependent on one person or a mafia that more or less does what it wants undemocratically.
For the past hundred years, Arab nationalism expressed a mystical idea about Arab unity. I do not for a moment deny that such an idea was an important one and, to its credit, it was inclusive, that is, the idea was to include all Arabs and Arab-speaking populations as parts of the national group. What was missing, as the subsequent history of Baath parties, Nasserism, and the like show, is that there was not sufficient enough consideration of democracy within Arab nationalism. There was a great deal of emphasis on the party and the leader and on the wonderful metaphysical value of the nation, but little attention paid to such things such as equality between citizens, the importance of elections, institutions and continuities based not on personalities and clan loyalty but on competence, orderly change and real democratic elections.
Along with the absence of democracy went an astonishing willingness to put up with hypocrisy. Ask any Palestinian today what he or she thinks about Arafat's cabinet shuffle and he will tell you immediately that it is a farce. Yet at the same time this citizen will accept the nonsense of the change and not say anything -- out of fear, anxiety of losing a job, compromising one's future. Instead of saying that this "change" of ministers is no change at all, we all go along with the sham. And we pay the price of it.
Maybe Arafat thinks that he has done the best thing for himself, but by any objective standard he has maintained the woefully inadequate group of individuals who have brought us all nothing but failure and made the whole Palestinian people pay for it. At this point, not even self-interest should allow such folly to continue. Hasn't the time come for every Palestinian to say that we refuse to cooperate with an Authority and a leader that is leading us to further disaster?