Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 November 2004
Issue No. 717
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The imperatives of continuity

Fatah's leaders will support Abu Mazen as the next president but will not allow him the free-hand Arafat enjoyed, writes Basheer M Nafie*

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A farewell march in the Palestinian refugee camp of Baqaa near Amman, Jordan (photo: AP)

There can be no doubt that the passing of Yasser Arafat marks the end of an era in the history of the Palestinian national struggle. Although Arafat's relationship with his people was not always very clear, he always managed to remain in control. His growing popularity during the past four decades lent him even greater authority, sufficient to enable him to withstand the continuing Israeli onslaught and unprecedented American pressure.

On the personal level Arafat was a gregarious leader, at ease with ordinary people. On a political level he was a clever tactician, a manipulator and a mercurial negotiator. He held the chairmanship of the PLO's executive committee and its central council, and headed Fatah's central committee and its revolutionary council. In 1994, with the founding of the Palestinian Authority (PA) on parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Arafat was elected a president of the PA and commander of its security forces. These multiple positions of authority granted Arafat a great degree of flexibility in convening the most suitable institution, at any given moment, to legitimate his own decisions.

Yet Arafat's leadership was the outcome of a complex historical process, played out during some of the most difficult days in recent Arab history. As in Syria and Iraq, the Palestinian sense of nationhood developed during the interwar period during the struggle against Western imperialist rule. But unlike other Arab peoples Palestinian national unity was shattered following the creation of Israel in 1948 and the Arab defeat of 1967. Fatah's, and the PLO's, struggle for Palestinian liberation and independence helped to revive the national identity of a people more than half of whom were scattered outside the homeland. Arafat, as the leader of both Fatah and the PLO, came to symbolise the re-emergence of the Palestinians as a nation and not as refugees. His deep understanding of the strong association between the Palestinian cause and the Arab situation secured for him a leading position in the Arab political arena.

It has become increasingly clear during the past few days that Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will be the next president of the PA. Abu Mazen was one of the founders of Fatah; he is also deputy chairman of the PLO's executive committee; the man behind the Oslo agreement, on the basis of which the PA came to exist and a former prime minister of the PA. His strength lies in his deeply rooted nationalist credentials, some of which have yet to enter the public record, his honesty and his truthfulness and candour even when standing against the majority.

A shy and reclusive man, Abu Mazen operates more like a technocrat than a charismatic nationalist leader. His opposition to the militarisation of the Intifada, at a time of Arab fury at the growing cost in Palestinian lives, and what seemed to be his adoption of a soft approach to the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he was appointed prime minister of the PA, did not endear him to the increasingly radicalised rank and file of Fatah or to the wider Palestinian public. If elected president next January, and this is almost a foregone conclusion, it will be because of the Palestinian people's sense of indebtedness to the old guard and the strongly felt need for continuity during a crucial period of Palestinian history.

Yet Abu Mazen's problems will not be limited to the realm of popular leadership. Even before becoming president his authority and command have been weakened. Rather than allowing him to inherit Arafat's leadership of the PLO and of Fatah, which is the real base of the PA and its ruling party, he has been named only chairman of the PLO's executive committee. The leadership of Fatah has gone to the more radical Abul-Lutuf, who opposed the Oslo agreement, refused to join the PA, and remained behind in Tunis in charge of the PLO's political committee. This division of authority at the helm of the Palestinian national movement was a wily decision on the part of Fatah's central committee, indicating that while supporting Abu Mazen as the next president Fatah's leaders are determined he will not have an Arafat-style free hand. The naming of Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa), the present prime minister, as chairman of the national security council, a position which he always sought, means that Abu Mazen will not have direct authority over the security forces. For long a vocal advocate of a strong premiership, Abu Mazen will have to relinquish some real powers to Abu Alaa.

Loyal to Arafat to the end the Palestinians were, deep down, becoming tired of their leader and his style of authoritarian leadership. No future president will be allowed to lead and rule the way Arafat was reluctantly allowed to lead and rule. Abu Mazen, as president, will need to learn, and learn quickly, the limits of his authority, and realise that whatever mandate he is going to be given will be conditional.

It is doubtful whether the Islamic forces, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, can directly influence the position of Abu Mazen. The Oslo agreement was the child of Fatah, and Fatah will be leading the PA for the foreseeable future. Abu Mazen, on the other hand, will almost certainly refuse American or Israeli demands to take harsh measures against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, not only because of the support they enjoy among the Palestinian people but also because of the difficulty he will encounter in making decisions that lack a national consensus. For Palestinian Islamists it is in their interest, and in the interest of the Palestinian people, at this stage at least, to safeguard Fatah's unity. Fatah has been for long the backbone of the Palestinian national movement and if it was to disintegrate or be weakened it may prove extremely difficult to replace.

Abu Mazen's failure or success will ultimately hinge on American policy and George Bush's real attitude towards Palestinian sufferings and rights. It was Bush's administration, in the triumphant days following the fall of Baghdad, that promoted the premiership of Abu Mazen and opened the doors of the White House to him. Abu Mazen's Palestinian supporters, for better of for worse, believed the American rhetoric and repackaged the prime minister as the only man who could gain enough international backing to clench an honourable deal from the Israelis. But when Abu Mazen was faced with Sharon's intransigence no one in Bush's administration raised a finger to save the Palestinian "man of peace".

During the past weekend Tony Blair, the British premier and closest ally of George Bush, was the first world leader to be received in Washington after the end of the American presidential elections. Blair, who is losing popular support over Iraq, hoped to obtain a commitment from Bush to significantly shift his policy towards the Palestinian question. He failed. It is, of course, premature to make a final judgement about the direction that Bush's second administration will take; the early signs, nonetheless, hold no comfort for the Palestinians. The rapidly deteriorating position in Iraq could play either way. It might encourage Bush to seek an alternative success, and focus on ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, or it might deepen Bush's bitterness towards the Arabs and the Arab world.

Abu Mazen, the Palestinian godfather of the Oslo agreement who, like Arafat, said "no" to Clinton and Barak in Camp David 2000, is heading towards a presidency over the fate of which he will have little control. As for Arab and world leaders who breathed a sigh of relief over the passing of Arafat -- that sigh may well prove to have been premature.

* The writer is a Palestinian academic and historian

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