Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Who will follow Abu Mazen?

Speculation over who succeeds PA President Mahmoud Abbas has reached fever pitch. Ahmed Eleiba examines the possibilities  

Al-Ahram Weekly

The admission to a Ramallah hospital of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, reignited the debate, in and out of Palestine, over who will succeed him, and how.

Abbas underwent heart surgery and although doctors reported that the cardiac catheterisation was successful and the octogenarian Palestinian president was in good health it has failed to halt speculation over his likely successor.

Abbas, who succeeded Yasser Arafat 11 years ago, has not appointed a vice president and there is no obvious candidate to automatically step into his shoes should he be incapacitated through ill health.

 “In Arafat’s time, it was known by everyone that Abu Mazen was the number two man, though no such official position existed. The knowledge dampened any power struggle between Palestinian leaders,” says Sobhi Asila, an expert on Palestinian affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Today the problem is more complicated though Abbas could go some way to resolving it before it turns into a crisis.”

Jihad Al-Harazin, a Palestinian law professor and member of the Fatah movement in Gaza, argues that by all but anointing his successor, Arafat ensured “things went smoothly and the political system continued without disruption.”

“Abu Mazen assumed the presidency of the PA following elections, as well as the chairmanship of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Oganisation [PLO]. Things proceeded smoothly, safeguarding the Palestinian political system.”

 An important point to note, says Al-Harazin, is that the PLO has legal jurisdiction over the PA. “While introducing the post of vice president requires an amendment to the basic law which, in turn, would require the approval of two-thirds of parliament, which has not sat since 2007, this can be overcome by convening a meeting of the Palestinian National Council. Or, if that proves difficult, then the PLO Central Committee could meet to take the decisions necessary to preserve the Palestinian political system.”

The question is made more urgent because Abu Mazen heads the PLO and Fatah in addition to the PA. His death, other incapacity or retirement, would precipitate a crisis in all three major Palestinian institutions. Tarek Fahmi, an expert at the Middle East Studies Centre who is close to the Egyptian foreign policy circles handling the Palestinian file, expects that after Abu Mazen there will be separate heads of the three entities. “The dilemma then,” he says, “is that there is huge competition in all of them.”

Problems are compounded by the absence of a consensus in Arab capitals over who should replace Abbas.

There is a large stock of possible candidates, says former Palestinian minister Hassan Ashour, posing the danger that post-Abbas the PA fall victim to “the politics of Arab axes and regional blocs”.

“The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have carved out their own areas for consultation and coordination,” says Ashour, “but not Qatar, which cannot act without being involved with Israel and Turkey. Palestinian questions are very seldom resolved solely by Palestinian decision-makers.”

 And then there is Abu Mazen himself. The PA president wants to remain in power and not delegate authority. Yet according to an informed source, “Cairo believes the moment has come to nominate a successor to Abu Mazen. This has been discussed openly. A handover from Abu Mazen, while he is still exercising his powers, is better than leaving the situation open.”

“Cairo does not have a single candidate,” says the source. “It has at least five.”

Among the names mooted is that of Abbas’s adversary Mohamed Dahlan, who also commands the support of the UAE.

“Dahlan may be the man who takes over, though we cannot overlook the role of Majed Faraj, the PA’s chief of intelligence. There are other candidates as well.”

Leaks from Cairo suggest its position towards Abu Mazen has changed. According to sources, Cairo brought up the subject of the succession with the Palestinian president a year ago, hoping that the animosity between Abbas and Dahlan, which has been growing for years, might be resolved. Unfortunately, says one source, a reconciliation appears unlikely.

Dahlan is a controversial figure. According to the same source, he has his sights set on becoming the head of Fatah. This could be complicated, since many suspect that he would then use Fatah to seek to control both the PA and PLO. Others point to the fact that there are Palestinian leaders older and more senior than Dahlan, many of whom are hostile despite the large support base Dahlan has built within Fatah.

There has been speculation that Abbas might use the seventh congress of the party to appoint a vice president, such as Saeb Ureikat, close to him. “Such a step would undermine existing understandings if he did it without prior consultation,” says the source.

Dahlan already has plans to hold a consultative conference in Cairo attended by Fatah officials. Reports in the Palestinian media say the plans have stoked tensions between Abu Mazen and Cairo. In Cairo it is rumoured that the UAE supports the conference, though it is far from clear that it will actually convene. One source claimed it would be hosted by the Centre of Middle Eastern Studies, in which case it will be more a small assembly than a conference. That no venue has been announced suggests Cairo does not want to refuse to host a meeting, fearing negative repercussions, but is also unwilling to host an event that would aggravate existing differences to the point of no return.

A Palestinian source told Al-Ahram Weekly that the stand-off between Abbas and Dahlan can only intensify.

“It is clear from Abu Mazen’s speeches and actions that he is bent on escalating the situation to create more divisions in the Palestinian political arena. He is even exhorting Fatah leaders such as Ahmed Halas and others to return to Gaza to confront Hamas, though Hamas has already pre-empted such a possibility.”

Other possible candidates mentioned in Cairo include Nasser Al-Qudwa, and historical leaders of Fatah Nabil Shaath and Gabriel Al-Rajoub, both of whom are respected by Cairo.

Hamas’s position on many of the possible candidates is unknown, though when asked about Dahlan as a possible successor to Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, a Hamas official reputed to be among the movement’s hawks, told the Weekly that “we could never accept him.”

“He has our blood on his hands. He can never get around this.”

Palestinian media have reported that Abu Mazen has spoken of the possibility to Fatah leaders. “This would not be the first time Abu Mazen has made such remarks,” says Mohamed Gomaa, an expert on Palestinian affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. As early as 2010 he hinted at a desire to quit politics though his actions, whether as PA president, Fatah chief or as PLO chairman, suggest a desire to remain in control and forestall the rise of a serious rival. He got rid of Ahmed Qarie in the 2007 Fatah elections, Yasser Abed Rabbo in 2015 and marginalised Dahlan in 2011. Then there is the restructuring of the Supreme Constitutional Court last May, the purpose of which was to minimise the possibility of his presidential decrees being challenged.”

“There is only one case in which Abu Mazen might retire,” predicts Gomaa. “This is if transitional arrangements permit individuals close to him to assume the top posts in the PLO, the PA and Fatah.”

Who will succeed Abu Mazen is a multi-faceted question. Any answer must take into account the complexities of Palestinian institutions, Abu Mazen’s own plans, complications stirred by the seemingly intractable dispute between him and Dahlan and the varied interests of other Arab parties.

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