Palestinian Political Dynamics in the Aftermath of the Egyptian Coup

I recently returned from a month-long visit to Ramallah and Jerusalem, where I met with Palestinian officials, civil society leaders, academics and journalists as well as foreign diplomats and other observers. Although the trip was planned several months earlier, the timing proved to be far more interesting than anticipated given the dramatic developments in the region over the summer.  I arrived in Ramallah in late July, only weeks after the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013, and days after the formal resumption of peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. While the picture is still far from settled, several important observations can be made about the state of Palestinian politics amid Egypt’s ongoing turmoil.

Negotiations: Why Now? … Why Not?

The resumption of formal Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in July, which is viewed as something of breakthrough in Washington and other western capitals, generates very little discussion among ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank.  A combination of widespread public skepticism and “negotiations fatigue” as well as concern over more pressing social and economic problems like unemployment and rising prices, has left Palestinians with little interest and even less confidence in the latest peace process. Indeed, many Palestinians I spoke with seemed more consumed by events in Egypt than with the newly launched peace talks.

Virtually none of the Palestinians I met with, including those close to Abbas’ leadership, had any confidence at all in the newly launched peace negotiations. In fact, the decision to go back to negotiations, despite the absence of a settlement freeze (indeed in the midst of a major spike in settlement activity), and other Palestinian demands, was highly unpopular even within Abbas’ own Fatah faction. Many pointed out, for example, that neither the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) nor Fatah’s Central Committee were in favor of returning to negotiations and that the decision was Abbas’ alone.

Palestinian skepticism is rooted in a lack of confidence in American mediation and even more so in a profound distrust of Israeli intentions. All of my Palestinian interlocutors, officials and non-officials alike, expressed zero confidence in Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ability, or even inclination, to achieve a genuine end to the conflict or a credible two-state solution. In addition to presiding over one of the most pro-settlement governments in Israel’s history, Netanyahu has made it clear that he is far more concerned with Iran’s nuclear program than he is with the Palestinian question. Netanyahu’s engagement in the process is thus seen as a way to neutralize international pressure (particularly on settlements), improve Israel’s image, and perhaps gain some leverage with U.S. officials on Iran.

Abbas’ decision to go back to negotiations was equally viewed in tactical terms—mainly as a way to win some short-term concessions, such as political prisoners and continued financial assistance to the PA, and to avoid being blamed for the failure of the process. Several observers also noted the importance of the “Kerry factor”—referring to the American secretary of state’s well-known passion for the issue as well as his (perhaps somewhat exaggerated) assessment of his own capabilities. American pressure can be difficult to resist, and Abbas, who has always placed a particularly high premium on American approval, was simply not in a position to say no.

The relatively high political and economic costs associated with alternative courses of action such as internationalization or internal reconciliation also helps explain Abbas’ preference for negotiations. While attempts at building on last year’s successful UN bid, for example by pursuing membership in the International Criminal court or other international bodies, or at entering into a power-sharing arrangement with Hamas are both hugely popular with Palestinians, they risk incurring the wrath of the United States and Israel, as well as another international boycott of an already cash-strapped PA.

In the end, the dramatic events in Egypt may have been the most decisive factor in compelling Abbas to go back to the negotiations. With Abbas’ Hamas rivals in Gaza seemingly sidelined, the costs of failing—and not just participating—in negotiations were suddenly and dramatically reduced. One veteran observer of the PLO who had met with Abbas in late July described his reasoning for agreeing to resume negotiations to me as, “why not?”

Hamas & Prospects for Reconciliation

Apart from the Egyptian people themselves, no other group has felt the impact of the turmoil in Egypt more acutely than the Palestinians. This is as true of Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank as it is of the Hamas government in Gaza. Whereas the rapid rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood following the Egyptian uprising of 2011 was a huge boon for Hamas and a major setback for Abbas’ leadership, the overthrow of Morsi and the subsequent crackdown on the Brotherhood have suddenly and decisively shifted the internal balance of power back in Abbas’ favor.

As a result, Palestinian internal reconciliation has become even less likely. In the wake of Morsi’s overthrow and the crackdown against the Brotherhood in Egypt, efforts at bridging the seven-year divide between Fatah and Hamas have gone into deep freeze.

Still in shock over Morsi’s ouster and the loss of their Brotherhood allies, Hamas has been gripped by insecurity and a growing sense of siege, neither of which are conducive to compromise. In addition to killing hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and jailing most of its leadership, Egyptian authorities have also targeted Hamas, itself an offshoot of the Brotherhood. Egyptian security forces have moved aggressively against the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that have been the lifeblood of both Gaza’s economy and Hamas rule, while accusing Hamas of fomenting instability across the border in Sinai. Despite occasional rhetorical outbursts directed at Egypt’s military, Hamas is keen to tamp down tensions with Egypt, with whom it must have good relations regardless of who is in power.

Hamas is also feeling the pressure from inside Gaza. A new protest movement known as Tamarod (“Rebellion”), modeled on the similarly named Egyptian group whose massive protests on June 30, 2013, precipitated  Morsi’s overthrow, has called for a “day of rebellion” on November 11, 2013. This has further piqued Hamas’ insecurity and sense of siege. As a result, the Hamas government has become even more repressive, rounding up youth activists, university professors, journalists, and any others with the potential to cause trouble. 

Meanwhile, Hamas is in a state of internal disarray as various factions within the group vie for power and struggle to cope with the isolation brought by Morsi’s ouster. Whereas before July 3, 2013 Cairo was seen as Hamas’ ticket to regional and international normalization, since the coup Hamas has been more isolated than ever. Events in Egypt have dealt a serious blow to Khaled Meshaal, the newly reelected leader of Hamas’ politburo and chief architect of the plan to reorient the group away from Iran and Syria and toward Egypt (along with Turkey and Qatar).

Hamas’ misfortune has been Fatah’s gain. Ironically, at the same time that Abbas’ negotiating position vis-à-vis Hamas was improved, his incentive for doing so has diminished. With local and regional trends now working for rather than against them, Abbas and his Fatah faction finally feel that they can afford to ignore Hamas—at least for now. Immediately following Morsi’s ouster, Abbas and other senior PLO figures heaped praise on Egypt’s military while doing little to conceal their satisfaction at the Brotherhood’s defeat and Hamas’ predicament.

Members of Abbas’s ruling clique see Hamas’ future as bound up with that of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. As one senior PLO official explained to me, Morsi’s ouster from power was not just a defeat for Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but the “demise of political Islam” as whole. Meanwhile, many of those close to Abbas described him as the most content and relaxed as they had seen him in many years. The sense of triumphalism among PLO/PA officials is palpable—occasionally bordering on the delusional. Some Fatah officials, I was told, are hoping that Egypt’s military will go on to “clean up” Gaza after finishing off the Brotherhood in Egypt.  

Leadership Crisis

Despite Fatah’s current sense of triumphalism over Hamas’ worsening position, Abbas’ leadership in the West Bank continues to face numerous crises. Indeed, the current leadership crisis extends to persons, institutions, and parties, as well as a lack of strategy or vision. Although not immediately evident, there is widespread dissatisfaction with Abbas’ leadership, including within Fatah, as well as equal frustration with the lack of an obvious alternative. Meanwhile, talk of rebuilding or reforming institutions is increasingly less focused on the PA, which is often derided as something more akin to a municipal authority than a state-in-the-making, and more on the PLO as a national/political body. Despite Abbas’ decision to go back to negotiations, the current Ramallah-based leadership remains strategically adrift.

Moreover, many Palestinians cited Abbas’ unilateral decision to go back to negotiations while ignoring any opposition, including within his own Fatah faction, as symptomatic of his growing autocratic style, lack of accountability, and detachment from ordinary Palestinians. More than one of my interlocutors observed that Abbas was even more autocratic than Arafat, who for all of his authoritarian tendencies and undemocratic way at least had an opposition to answer to. Abbas meanwhile has neither a parliament to oversee his government nor any genuine political opposition that can openly challenge his decision making; the Palestinian Legislative Council has not met in five years while Hamas’ activities in the West Bank continue to be suppressed by the PA.

Fatah has sought to capitalize on its newfound ascendency by calling for new elections in order settle the dispute with Hamas once and for all, something Hamas has flatly rejected.  Abbas himself, in his most recent address to the UNGA, has called for achieving, “reconciliation by returning to the ballot box”—a rather myopic proposal given his own experiences as well as those of neighboring Egypt. Experience shows that elections, when held in the absence of a political consensus on the basic rules of the game, seldom resolve political disputes and frequently exacerbate them.

Despite these political crises and worsening economic conditions in the West Bank, prospects for major street mobilization—whether it is directed at the Israeli occupation (“third Intifada”) or at the PA itself (“Palestinian spring”) —remain  slim. This may be less a reflection of Palestinian contentment than with the general lack of confidence in existing institutions. The PLO, officially the “sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, today exists only on paper, while its successor, the PA, is itself in decline.  Meanwhile both Hamas and Fatah seem incapable of transcending their own narrow, parochial agendas. This dysfunctional reality points to a much deeper crisis of legitimacy that must be addressed before any credible diplomatic or “institution-building” processes can be pursued.

It is clear that events in Egypt will continue to be a significant factor in the political calculus of both Palestinian leaderships, shaping decision making on a range of issues, including the negotiations with Israel, internal reconciliation and other choices. With Hamas on the defensive and more isolated than ever, Abbas’ Fatah leadership has found itself once again in the driver’s seat of Palestinian politics. Given the volatility of events in the region however, and the susceptibility of a divided Palestinian polity to external forces, the current situation may not hold for long.  If there is one lesson to be gleaned from both the Palestinian and Egyptian cases, it is that without a basic consensus on the rules of the game it is impossible to move forward on a coherent national program.