Democracy, the forbidden fruit

Palestine Times – December 2004 – Ismail Adam Patel
15 December 2004

From the time Yasser Arafat was airlifted from his dilapidated compound in Ramallah for treatment to Paris, a disturbing moan emerged from the media and political circus. Aside from the—at least nominal—concern for Arafat’s health, expert after expert from politics, academia and the media bemoaned Arafat’s failure to have groomed his own successor.

On the face of it, such concern for the political future of the Palestinians was touching; perhaps there was some sympathy there after all. But no—think again. The debacle in Iraq is but the latest in a long line of American-led military interventions resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people with the aim of imposing democracy. In such circumstances, surely the fact that no successor is waiting in the wings, groomed and raring to go, is a cause for celebration, proof that the Palestinians are ready for a smooth, democratically achieved transfer of power—apparently not.

Instead of encouraging a proper democratic process to herald the post-Arafat era, the hand of the ‘democratic West’ is seeking to ensure that the Palestinians appoint a man we can do business with. Possibly another Hamid Karzia whose victory we were told was not guaranteed but raised the roof of the House of Commons with laughter when the Prime Minister made Karzia’s success the butt of his joke.

Or perhaps another Ayad Alawi, for whom the bookies will not give odds. This is not a far-fetched theory. History demonstrates clearly that it is not democracy we want in the Middle East but Arab stooges with whom the local populace can relate vaguely to and we can, by and large, trust to be our kind of guy. In such a scenario, the young men of the Black Watch and others like them must shed their blood for the fiefdoms of Iraq and Kuwait, while the likes of Jordan and Egypt—hardly beacons of democracy—exist on Western handouts to the tune of billions of dollars. From another angle, when through democratic means the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) of Algeria appeared to be sweeping to a landslide victory, the West backed the Algerian army to crush any hopes of a democratically elected Islamist government.

This injustice was more or less accepted by most of the world, cancelling at a stroke the possibility of having proof that Islam could succeed with the ballot, not the bullet.

The experts will not have failed to notice that almost all student union elections in Palestinian universities—a very strong indicator of the possible outcome of a national election—have been won by the Islamist groups. In December 2003 the liberal Bir Zeit University in Jerusalem saw Hamas win 25 of the 51 seats, while Yasser Arafat’s Fatah took 20. This stunning success of Hamas was repeated in the An-Najah University in the West Bank and in Gaza the victory was even more astounding. It is within such a political framework that we should view the ‘experts’ mourning not Arafat himself but his failure to nominate a successor.

The present dilemma facing the neo-cons and associated right-wing Western establishments is the possible replacement of the PLO by Islamic movements as represented by the likes of Hamas. This would jeopardize their justification for the war against the ‘evil other’, for which read, ‘the Islamists’, for the Islamists generally, and in Palestine in particular, not only subscribe to democratic means but aspire to freedom of expression, thought and religion. They further seek common grounds with their neighbours, including Israel, as was often quoted by the late Sheikh Yassin, murdered by Israeli missiles. Hence, if Hamas is allowed to reap the fruits of democracy this would undermine the vilification of Islam as a barbaric, anti-democratic religion to be feared by all and destroy the credibility of the ‘war on terrorism’ and the accompanying paraphernalia of undermining the values held dear in the West.

No doubt the old guard that surrounded Arafat will be in with a shout and some, like Ahmed Qureih (the present Palestinian Prime Minister) and Mahmoud Abbas (Arafat’s number two) will be favoured by America. The favoured candidate of Israel would have to be Mohammed Dahlan, who served as the security chief in Gaza and is thought to have been trained in Washington. However, the name on the lips of PLO supporters is that of Marwan Barghouti who is currently in an Israeli jail serving five life sentences. It remains to be seen if the possibility of Hamas success at an election would spur Israel and the U.S. to strike a deal with Barghouti.

With hindsight it is possible to consider that the murder by Israel of Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi was a security measure to remove Palestinian ‘father figures’. Both these men were honoured not only by the Palestinians but also the international community. As Islamists they also accepted that their movement would have to negotiate with Israel if it was to return land occupied in 1967. Despite the loss of Hamas leaders, any genuinely free and fair election in Palestine will see Hamas take the mandate if the university results are anything to go by. But is Israel—according to Sharon’s aide Dov Weisglass—making sure ‘that there would not be a political process with the Palestinians’ and its allies ready to accept such a democratic result? That is the question. The answer is awaited with baited breath.


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