No sir, Yasser
An internal crisis that rocked the Palestinian movement Fatah this week highlighted its dire need for reform. Khaled Amayreh reports
Some 300 low and mid-level members of Fatah, the mainstream PLO faction and "ruling party" of the Palestinian Authority (PA) submitted their resignations from the movement on Saturday, citing disenchantment at the lack of democracy and reforms.
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Palestinian father weeps the loss of his son Mahmoud Dabus, a fighter from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine
The signatories, who come from all parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lambasted the party leadership, comprised of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and his top aides, for failing to introduce democratic and organisational reforms within Fatah.
The signatories' rebellion comes at a sensitive juncture, when the PA leadership is still struggling for survival in the face of Israel's unrelenting campaign to render it irrelevant.
One Fatah leader in the southern West Bank, who asked for anonymity, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the signatories were fed up with the "snobbish and undemocratic treatment they get from the movement's higher echelons.
"I'm sure", the activist continued, the signatories "have repeatedly spoken with the leadership of the need to reform, but to no avail. The problem with the leadership is that it still lives in the 1970s and 1980s when Arafat held all the reins and took all the decisions.
"Things have changed a lot, the old have gotten older and the young have become more conscious of the world around them and are no longer willing to just say 'yes, sir'."
Chairman Arafat has declined to publicly comment on the mass resignations. However, other Fatah officials have blamed "provocateurs" of "staging this feat in order to embarrass the movement and its leadership".
Amin Maqboul, Fatah's acting secretary-general in the West Bank, accused the signatories of "exploiting the current situation and stirring up bad feelings". Meanwhile, Arafat's senior security aide, Jibril Al-Rajoub, claimed that many of the signatories were not even Fatah members.
Some Fatah insiders have suggested that former Palestinian Minister for Security Affairs Mohamed Dahlan "fabricated the whole thing" for the purpose of "settling scores" with Arafat and his top aides.
Dahlan acted as Abu Mazen's security chief, alienating many Fatah partisans who accused him of acting at Israel and America's beck and call in cracking down on resistance organisations. Following the collapse of the Abu Mazen government last year, Dahlan was removed from his position.
"I am almost completely sure that Dahlan was behind this petition," said a Gaza journalist, who suggested that Dahlan has "scores to settle with many people around Arafat ... and even with Arafat himself".
This is not to say though that Dahlan is inventing problems for Fatah. The movement, it is all too clear, is infested with serious and chronic internal problems which compromise its unity.
A key problem facing the movement is the lack of democracy, especially at the top leadership level where officials acquire their status and stature by virtue of their personal ties to Yasser Arafat.
According to its charter, Fatah is supposed to hold elections for the party's governing bodies every five years, but they have not taken place in 15 years.
Needless to say, this chronic state of affairs creates deep disenchantment and frustration among grassroot Fatah members.
Many grassroot Fatah members feel frustrated by the lack of accountability within the organisation, as its mid- and upper-level leadership answers only to Arafat.
Fatah is also plagued by its unclear relationship to the PA, as the two organisations have overlapping memberships.
Moreover, the Al-Aqsa Intifada has nearly shattered whatever semblance of ideological homogeneity Fatah had prior to the outbreak of the Intifada nearly 40 months ago.
According to Fatah insiders, some factions of the movement, particularly in the northern part of the West Bank, have effectively "converted" to the Islamist camp. Many activists have defected from Fatah, either officially or for all practical purposes, joining with the Islamic Jihad group and, to a lesser extent, Izzedin Al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas.
Another factor in the mass resignation was the chronic problem of corruption and cronyism, as those around Arafat amass fortunes overnight. This particular dimension has long hurt morale within the movement's rank and file, who have borne the brunt of Israel's repression without such privileges.
All of these problems, one must remember, are by no means new. Moreover, the mass resignations, irrespective of who stands behind them, are by no means the first protest and unlikely to be the last at the chronic ailments plaguing the mainstream Palestinian national liberation movement.
Historically, Yasser Arafat has kept all these problems under control simply by ignoring them or by treating them as "normal" and "unavoidable".
But Arafat, no longer a dashing guerrilla leader at the age of 74, has lost much of his autocratic clout and more importantly, much of his psychological influence, both in the eyes of the Palestinian public and the Fatah activists.
A growing minority is beginning to think that Arafat has outlived his usefulness and should retire in dignity. However, Arafat has constructed Fatah around himself, so that there are real doubts as to whether the organisation could survive intact without him, as even his most avowed critics will acknowledge.
While Saturday's mass resignations will not directly threaten Arafat's leadership, they do reveal the serious rift between Fatah's aging leadership and its younger activists.