Democratic Uprisings in Arab Societies and the Palestinian Struggle

April 2011, 3rd

Jamil Hilal

Because the popular democratic uprisings in the Arab countries have not yet run their course, it is somewhat premature to make definite statements on the future shape of the region. The mass protests have succeeded, in Egypt and Tunisia so far, in removing dictators, but have not yet swept away the regimes they ruled, and this explains why the street protests have not yet stopped in these two countries. This does not deflect from the fact that a dawn of a new political era has descended and many political actors are wrestling to shape the future course of events. Regardless of the final outcome, it will mean the existence of a different Middle East from that which existed before January of this year. It remains to be seen whether the democratic wave that swept the Arab countries will stop at its procedural dimension (free and fair regular general elections for people to choose their representatives) or will encompass its substantive dimension that enshrines (in law and in practice) the principles of equality, social justice and dignity. This essay focuses mainly on how the popular democratic uprisings in the Arab world are likely to impact on the Palestinian national struggle.

It may be relevant to point out that the path, tempo and reactions of each regime to the popular uprising have been different, as they were (and are) informed by different factors and actors. The same applies to the regional and international reactions and actions towards each. What is common can be found in the overwhelming popular desire for democratic change and for putting an end to autocracy, repression and corruption.

Israeli leadership laments the departure of Arab dictators

The democratic uprisings in the neighboring Arab states did not go unnoticed by the Israeli leadership. Netanyahu, the incumbent Israeli prime minister, likened what happened in Egypt and the region to an earthquake, and did not hesitate to express his sadness for the ousting of Mubarak. He warned of an "Iran next door" scenario in Egypt, and pledged to fence off Israel's peaceful borders with Egypt and Jordan. Many of the Israeli leaders who previously castigated Arab states for their dictatorships are now expressing fears regarding their overthrow in these countries, seeing in democracy a threat that is likely to sweep Islamic radicals into power (not only in Egypt but also in Syria and Jordan among others) and enhance the influence of Iran in the region rather than enhance democratic changes within it.

It is not difficult to see why the Israeli leadership is worried about democratic changes in the Arab world, particularly in its neighboring countries. First, Israel can no longer market itself, internationally, as the only democracy (albeit for Israeli Jews only) in the Middle East. Second, it realizes, as does the United States – its major uncritical champion and supporter - that democracy informs governments and does not (not for long periods anyway) over-ride the opinions of the majority of their citizens. The Arab dictatorships that the Unites States and Europe have been supporting for decades - in return for their subservience to the West - have either been overthrown, or are in the process of being so, or at least of having their power curtailed. Such changes are likely, sooner or later, to be reflected in changes in these countries’ regional and international policy; such a policy is bound to influence their stands towards the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian question. This comes at a time when the world is increasingly regarding Israel as it came to regard apartheid South Africa.

Israel’s political class harbors an instinctive fear of any empowerment of the Arab street. Its foreign policy has been obsessed with the question of security (its own) without concern for the legitimate rights and aspirations of Palestinians and the rest of the Arab region. The Arab dictatorships provided Israel with the necessary "stability” that assured its security. This is why Israeli leaders praise democracy in principle but warn of its perils in practice. In March 2011 Barak, the incumbent Israeli defense minister, explained that "as much as they [Arab dictators] were unacceptable to their peoples, they were very responsible on regional stability. They're much more comfortable [to Israel] than the peoples or the streets in the same countries."

Indeed, the political class in Israel was thankful for the fact that Mubarak guarded its back when it fought wars on its eastern and northern fronts - as has happened many times. Even the Assad regime of Syria was appreciated because of the president’s predictability, and his unwillingness to undertake risky confrontations. But there's a deeper motive underlying the Israeli attitude. It is an attitude that sees Israel as a western modern democracy existing in the midst of a backward region. This is the reasoning behind the description of Israel’s regional situation by Barak as "a villa in the jungle" or as "an oasis fortress in the desert".

Until early 2011 it was the region's lack of democracy that Israeli leaders used to put forward as the reason for their reluctance to make peace with the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon. But, following the eruption of the democratic uprisings in the Arab world their new excuse is the region's excess of democratic zeal. In response to what has happened in Egypt and elsewhere Israel’s prime minister declared that he could not allow his country to agree to the risky "concessions" that a peace accord entails, and called for raising the share of the military in the budget. Mubarak was seen as one of Israel’s most reliable and stable allies. He was very much valued by Israel and the United States for his role in containing Hamas, standing against Iranian policies, and in facilitating Israeli-Palestinian talks. In short, the political leaders of Israel (and in the USA) seem to think that democratization in the Arab world is only good if it benefits either or both countries first and foremost.

A divided national movement fails to utilize the ramifications of Arab democratic revolution

Each of the two major conflicting Palestinian factions seems to have drawn beforehand its own conclusions from the democratic uprisings in the Arab region. Fatah, which dominates the political field in the occupied West Bank, has refrained from expressing support for these uprisings, particularly those in Egypt and in Tunisia where the two regimes have sided with Fatah against Hamas. On the other hand Hamas, which has come to control the Gaza Strip, has welcomed the overthrow of Mubarak (but only after his overthrow) whose regime took part in the siege of Gaza and sided with Fatah.

Hamas seems to believe that the coming presidential and legislative elections in Egypt later in 2011 will be heavily influenced by the Moslem Brotherhood movement as it is the most organized political group in Egypt, since the nascent youth movement which led the uprising would not have had sufficient time to organize itself as an effective force for the elections. Hamas hopes that the new president and government in Egypt will be more forthcoming towards it and its policies than the Mubarak regime was. Yet there are no signs that the new regime will, in the near future, adopt policies that favor either Hamas or Fatah. Nor are there indications that the new system in Egypt will, in the near or foreseeable future, rescind the Camp David accords signed between Egypt and Israel in 1978 following which Egypt was neutralized with relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict, thus tilting the balance of power more radically to Israel’s benefit.

The fall of Mubarak’s regime, once the process is completed, will weaken Israel in that it increases Israel’s isolation and empowers Palestinians and strengthens the negotiating position of Syria and Lebanon. Before Camp David accords Israel fought four wars against Egypt at a cost of tens of thousands of lives and at an immense economic price (subsidized by the USA). The Camp David accords effectively eliminated the Arab military threat to Israel altogether; indeed, with the exception of a few missiles from Iraq in the early 1990s, no state has attacked Israel since 1979. The wars that Israel has waged since then have been against non-state actors (PLO (1982), Palestinian Authority (2002) Hezbollah (2006), and Hamas (2008)).The peace treaty with Israel allowed it to reduce its defense expenditures to less than a third of the rate (of GDP) that it was in early 1980s, enabling it to invest heavily in economic growth.

But what the Hamas leadership needs to be aware of is the fact that the strategy of the new Egyptian leadership is not likely to be based on the same political considerations as those of Mubarak; this means that Egypt’s stance toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be informed by the wider regional and international strategy it will articulate. Similarly Fatah should not wager on the reform movement in Syria leading to political changes that will substantively alter its strategy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, nor will it be based, necessarily, on the factional interests within the Palestinian political movement..

The geo-political cum institutional present polarization between Fatah and Hamas power explains their attitude to the democratic uprisings in the region. Fatah, as was mentioned earlier, has refrained from openly supporting any of the uprisings, because it does not wish to interfere in the internal affairs of Arab states. Hamas similarly took a wait-and-see position towards the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings but expressed openly its jubilation once the Mubarak regime fell. It also did not hide its support for the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi, but refrained from supporting the uprising in Bahrain, unlike Fatah, which allied itself with the monarchy after the Gulf States intervened militarily in its support. Fatah was, informally, more supportive of the uprising in Syria, while Hamas keep silent regarding what was happening there. Both have missed the significance of the democratic uprisings in the Arab world.

The democratic uprisings signal an urgent need for rebuilding the Palestinian national movement

The impetus for the popular Arab revolutions was overwhelmingly democratic. It was directed against repressive regimes with widespread corruption, together with high rates of unemployment and poverty and a widening gap between the rich and the poor. In addition there was a loss of what can be termed national self-respect, as most of these countries succumbed to the diktats of regional and international powers. Egypt lost its regional role after it signed the Camp David accords, and the Arab world became dominated internationally by the United States, and with no leaders of its own in the region, its major players were non-Arab (Israel, Turkey and Iran). The democratic revolution in Egypt has opened the way for Egypt regaining the leadership role it lost in the seventies of the last century.

The current geo-political and institutional polarization in the Palestinian political field seems to have disguised the fact that Palestinians have made their own popular uprising in the long fight for national self-determination and freedom. In 1987 they initiated a long intifada (a popular uprising) against the Israeli settler-colonial role, and another intifada erupted in the year 2000. Their national movement (embodied in the PLO as the all-inclusive national organization) had a built-in pluralism of political organizations with differing political, ideological and social underpinnings. The PLO sought, successfully until the very early 1990s, to represent and provide leadership to the various Palestinian communities inside historic Palestine and in the diasporas (shatat), and despite some serious defects and inadequacies (e.g. the quota system, bureaucratization, and over-militarization in the seventies) the PLO survived three precarious and highly tumultuous decades (sixties, seventies, and eighties of the last century), because it embodied national unity, represented the unified national identity and provided leadership to the Palestinians in their different communities. But with the Oslo accords the PLO began to rapidly lose those functions.

The Oslo accords marked the beginning of a new era for the Palestinian political movement: the PLO was, in actual practice, replaced by a self-governing authority (named the Palestinian National Authority) on parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which was to transfer itself into an independent and sovereign Palestinian state at the end of a five-year interim period. This never happened. Instead Israel, as the colonial settler state, used negotiations to expand its colonial settlements, and entered into a process of fragmenting the 1967-occupied Palestinian territory with settlements, military road blocks, and bypass roads for the Israeli Jewish settlers; it built a racist Separation Wall, turned the Gaza Strip into an enormous prison, and imposed a regime of ethnic cleansing over East Jerusalem.

In short the Palestinian Authority disregarded the all-embracing national institution (the PLO), without gaining a state on 22% of historic Palestine, and ended up dividing and fragmenting the Palestinian people. Despite this, the current Palestinian leaders have not drawn the lessons of 17 years of futile negotiations with Israel; nor have they read correctly the message of the democratic uprisings in the Arab world in order to realize the necessity of renovating and rebuilding the PLO, to review critically the so-called peace, and start a nation-wide dialogue for devising a new militant strategy to confront the Israeli settler-colonial and racist project.

Most Palestinians have come to realize that to continue negotiations without a clear well-defined and agreed upon objective is not only futile, but provides a cover for Israel to continue its colonization and creeping ethnic cleansing. Palestinians have also come to realize that to uphold the slogan of resistance without specifying what form it needs to take in each of the many Palestinian communities (inside Israel, in camps in Lebanon, Syria, and in communities of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and for Palestinians living in the Gulf or in Europe, etc.) is meaningless. Given the Palestinian multi-varied situations and locations, different forms of resistance and forms of struggle are needed that include non-compliance, civil disobedience, mass protests, and boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), among other forms.

Understanding the dynamics of change in Middle East

The outcome of popular protests for democratic change in the Arab world will not arrive through a knockout blow, but will probably emerge through a war of positions varying in pace and intensity from country to country. What can be said about the emerging contours of the Arab world can be summarized at this moment in time as follows:

First, the USA and the EU can no longer rely on authoritarian and reactionary regimes in the region to guard their interests, as these regimes have either collapsed and been replaced or else destabilized and will be overthrown sooner or later. The West supported Arab authoritarian regimes to secure the stability of its interests there. To this end it ignored violations of human rights by these regimes. But the events that have unfolded since the beginning of the current year indicate that no Arab regime that has been shaken by massive street protests can remain subservient to Western interests and diktat, or can survive for long. The USA and EU have continued their double standards regarding violations of basic human rights and war crimes; they are ready to apply sanctions against the Gaddafi regime (before that the Iraqi, and Iranian regimes), but not against Israel, or for that matter against autocratic client regimes like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

The EU has emphasized in its relation with the Arab region, economic cooperation and migration management but totally ignored issues of democracy, national dignity and sustainable development. The USA has busied itself in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of fighting terrorism, but brazenly uses its veto privilege to defeat any resolution in the Security Council that is critical of Israel, even when it commits war crimes against Palestinian civilians, as has been the case so many times. The West must leave Arab societies to sort out their problems and find their path to development without interference or harassment; it needs to cease its politico-cultural patronizing in the pursuit of its own narrow interests.

Second, Israel will find itself, sooner rather than later, facing a region that is much more assertive in resisting its expansionist, belligerent, and racist policies. The new Egypt is more likely to seek a more independent foreign policy than that willed on it by the Unites States and Saudi Arabia. It is more likely, therefore to be supportive of Palestinian rights, and more ready to take on a leading regional role in co-ordination with Iran and Turkey. This will have an impact on the balance of power in the region which will reflect on the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

The unprecedented popular uprisings in the various Arab countries have brought into the forefront a new political reality: an assertive Arab public opinion that can no longer be ignored. Any political proposal or plan will need the consent of the Arab public before it gains the approval of Arab political leaders. USA and Israel will have to get used to this new reality: Arab public opinion which was considered to be nonexistent or irrelevant prior to January 2011 cannot be ignored. This raises questions about the present relevance of the Arab Peace Initiative in a new region which is leaving behind it the Saudi era. The emerging era is more likely to show genuine support to the Palestinian cause. Arab popular solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is not a secret.

Third, the democratization of the region has heightened - among the Palestinian youth inside historic Palestine and in the diasporas – the political debate on strategic issues of how to rebuild an effective national movement. We have seen insistent calls, as well as public activity, for national unity that did not ignore the disturbing repressive features acquired by the two political entities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as if Israeli repression were not enough. Recent weeks have seen incessant demands by Palestinians for abrogating the Oslo accords (that have been abrogated, in practice, by Israel years ago), and to refuse the humiliating practice of security co-ordination between Palestinian Authority security forces and Israeli security forces. The Majority of Palestinians would like to see a stop to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations unless Israel completely ceases all colonial-settler activity in the West Bank and the aim of the negotiations, and their legal basis is clearly stated.

Fourth, the recent democratic uprisings have, by the demonstration effect, accelerated the use of the social media as a means to connect youth (who compose a sizeable portion of Palestinians) in the various Palestinian communities (in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip). Palestinians in Israel, in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in Europe and the United States are creating a new momentum that is bound to enhance the process of re-building a new democratic and dynamic national movement.

Fifth, both of the two major opposed political factions (Fatah and Hamas) will have to read the significance of the democratic uprisings objectively. This does not favor either of the two contending parties (Fatah and Hamas), but demands changes from both. The major demand of the popular uprisings is the establishment of sovereign democratic civil states. The so-call moderate camp to which Fatah has allied itself has received a severe blow with the departure of Mubarak and Bin Ali, and with the upheavals in the Gulf and Yemen. But the so-called resistance camp to which Hamas has allied itself has also been called to account for the totalitarian nature of its rule in Gaza and the need for national reconciliation on democratic basis.

Fatah has to shape up to the Israeli settler-colonial occupation on many issues, including the demeaning security coordination and strategic concessions. Hamas has to understand that raising the slogan of resistance against Israel cannot in any way justify its repression of the opposition in Gaza or the enforcing of its version of Islam on society. The need for democracy, social justice should go hand in hand with the need to continue the struggle for self-determination and national rights. Islamic movements in Egypt and Tunisia have raised the issue of democracy and have come out openly in favor of building a civil state, and not an Islamic state. The demands by demonstrators in Arab capitals for democratization and freedom from subservience to external powers remove pressures that were exercised on Fatah and Hamas by Arab states, and should spur both parties to move towards reconciliation.

Sixth, the geo-political polarization that has been institutionalized in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the 2007 legislative elections under pressures from Israel, the Quartet, and Arab regional centers, have led to the two authorities adopting increasingly repressive measures against the opposition, and have undermined a concerted policy against Israel’s colonial and racist policies. This has led to widespread frustration, anger and dissatisfaction among Palestinians everywhere. If the sectarian policies continue, then the demand for launching a third intifada against Israel ( already suggested for mid-May 2011) could easily become to be directed against the two governments (in the West Bank and Gaza) as well as against Israel.

From DIALOGUE REVIEW ( www.dialogue-review.com )