Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 October - 31 November 2012
Issue No. 1120
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Haniyeh, Meshaal face off

With two big names dropping out of the running, it would appear that the way is clear for Ismail Haniyeh to take over as Hamas head, unless Khaled Meshaal demurs, writes Saleh Al-Naami

At first glance it seems that there's a significant chance that Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh will succeed Khaled Meshaal as head of Hamas's politburo, especially after Moussa Abu Marzouq, the politburo's deputy chief, and member Saleh Al-Aruri, who had a better chance to succeed Meshaal, announced they will not run for the position. But Haniyeh's election -- something he really wants -- faces opposition on principle and for personal reasons.

On principle, several members of Hamas's General Shura Council, which is expected to pick the next politburo chief within two months, still believe that the person in the top job should be based overseas, not inside Gaza. The reasoning is that current conditions require the group's leadership to have freedom of movement, to be able to visit other countries and meet with officials. This is a key task for the Hamas chief, in order to secure political and financial support for the group.

Some Hamas leaders are worried that Hamas's capacity for diplomatic and political action would be negatively affected if the next chief is located inside Gaza, in the case that the Rafah border is closed for one reason or another. They are also concerned that a politburo chief located inside would become an easy assassination target for Israel, like all other Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Others on the ground believe the new chief needs to be free of domestic problems resulting from governing the Gaza Strip, in order to better contribute to envisioning the priorities and problems facing the movement everywhere. Advocates of keeping the group's leadership abroad also emphasise the fact that the large majority of Palestinians are living as refugees outside Palestine, which symbolically requires the leader of the group to also be in the Diaspora. This sends a clear political message to the world that Hamas will never compromise on the issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

Sources revealed that there are also objections about Haniyeh's personality. Many Hamas leaders believe he lacks leadership qualities, such as charisma, and has an innate tendency for consensus and compromise. They say Haniyeh also avoids taking decisions if he thinks they would result in clashes with others. At the same time, his experience is primarily in dealing with domestic problems and he would find it difficult to be a leader on the foreign political and diplomatic front.

Nonetheless, Haniyeh's chances of ascending to the top are high in the absence of strong competition after Al-Aruri and Abu Marzouq decided not to run. It was rumoured that Meshaal wanted Al-Aruri ��-- a close confidante -- to win, especially that the latter is also highly respected by the group's grassroots in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Abu Marzouq's withdrawal from the race was a surprise.

The question now is: If Haniyeh is the sole key figure in the race, although there are many reservations about him, who is the person who can lead Hamas in the coming period? According to the group's internal regulations, Hamas's General Shura Council must choose among its members the head and members of the politburo.

After Al-Aruri's and Abu Marzouq's withdrawal, the figures who could compete against Haniyeh are relative unknowns. Accordingly, some believe that members of the Shura Council will pressure Meshaal to reverse his decision not to run for re-election. Although this is a slim possibility, especially since Meshaal said he is determined to make way for new blood, it is still possible. Judging from his actions in the past, Meshaal has previously insisted on leaving his post but changed his mind subsequently. It is therefore interesting to imagine who else will run if Meshaal does not change his mind. Were he to change his mind, the Shura Council would almost certainly elect him for a fifth term.

Overall, it appears that Haniyeh is taking all the necessary steps to ensure his election as chief, such as the recent cabinet reshuffle, which included appointing Ziyad Al-Zaza as deputy prime minister. It is noteworthy that the prime minister announced he would delegate all his responsibilities to Al-Zaza and remain as a figurehead prime minister.

If Palestinian laws allowed Haniyeh to resign and appoint someone in his place he would not hesitate to do so, but if he stepped down, then Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would be the one appointing the next prime minister. Since Abbas would never appoint a Hamas figure, Haniyeh will remain as a figurehead to free his schedule for electioneering.

In a move to gain the confidence of Shura members, Haniyeh spelled out his political views that contradicted Meshaal's assessment of Hamas's performance in the Gaza Strip. The prime minister focused on Meshaal's speech at the "Islamists and Democratic Rule" conference in Doha sponsored by the Arab Centre for Political Studies.

Meshaal argued that it has been proven beyond a doubt that it is impossible to combine both governance and resistance. "Hamas attempted to combine power and resistance," he declared, "and it turned out to be difficult. But the group is still biased towards resistance which continues in Gaza despite geographic and border difficulties with the Zionist enemy".

In complete contradiction with the political discourse maintained by Hamas leaders inside, Meshaal said: "It would be an exaggeration to claim there is Islamist rule in Gaza, but it is an experiment that forced Hamas to take over responsibility of managing the Gaza Strip under extraordinary circumstances because power in the Palestinian case is not a normal condition. Sovereignty is incomplete and even altogether absent, and the components of statehood are non-existent. The population is fragmented and scattered, the land is occupied, and the Palestinian Authority has no authority."

He admitted that Hamas made mistakes and that "it was forced to take part in elections and government to offset the negative effects of Oslo. Therefore, its actions are not a model but primarily a lesson and example for others."

Meshaal added: "Democracy is a basic demand for all Islamist forces that chose to participate in public action, especially since they suffered the most in its absence. They are now more aware of its importance because it guarantees plurality, freedom, rotation of power and the people's opinion prevails."

Some of what Meshaal said contradicts with what Haniyeh has always maintained about "the positive aspects" of Hamas's stint in power, and the prime minister is very sensitive about criticism of this experience, especially from within the group. Haniyeh spoke at an event honouring departing ministers after the recent cabinet reshuffle, responding to Meshaal. He strongly praised Hamas's experience in power, describing it as "the first incident of Islamist rule not only in Palestine, but also the Arab and Islamic worlds in general."

Perhaps Haniyeh's enthusiasm made him forget other Islamist experiments, such as Islamist rule in Sudan, and he tried to showcase Hamas's rule in Gaza as support for the resistance project against occupation. "We are moving within the borders of the entire nation of Palestine, all of Palestine. Gaza is the first step towards liberating Palestine, all of Palestine," he said.

He emphasised that his government's supreme goal is "liberating Palestine, the detainees, and repatriating refugees in their land and country. Our priority is liberating the land and the people, and Gaza was the towering fortress, the patch of resistance and a step on the road to liberating the land and people."

Everyone who heard Haniyeh knew his aim was to respond to Meshaal's speech. But if his intention was to promote himself as worthy of succeeding Meshaal, he largely failed, as many in Hamas disagree with his assessment of the group's experiment in combining governance and resistance.

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