The “Egypt Effect” on Palestinian Politics

The Egyptian uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years in power was a watershed moment in the Middle East, inspiring a wave of rebellions and serving notice to Arab governments that no leader is immune from the collective wrath of his people.

At a time when overtly repressive regimes in Libya and elsewhere are responding to popular challenges to their rule with iron-fisted violence, it may be easy to overlook the more subtle influence the “Egypt effect” is having on other governments with serious, if not yet fatal, legitimacy problems of their own.

Among the governments seeking to shore up their domestic legitimacy is the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority. While nothing indicates that President Mahmoud Abbas will be the next domino to fall, the Egypt effect is already manifesting itself in the realignment of the Palestinian Authority’s political priorities.

The Egypt effect has forced Palestinian leaders to deal with their sagging domestic legitimacy with greater urgency and has given ordinary Palestinians a newfound sense of empowerment regarding their ability to change their political condition.

The first sign of this phenomenon came less than 24 hours after Mubarak’s resignation, when the Palestinian Authority announced that long-delayed local, legislative and presidential elections would be held by September.

Although the promised elections are unlikely to happen, given strong opposition by Hamas and its government in Gaza, the announcement underscores the Palestinian Authority’s desire to respond to the demands of an increasingly frustrated and vocal populace.

The Egypt effect has touched young Palestinians, in both Gaza and the West Bank. They are calling for mass demonstrations to take place on March 15 to demand an end to the political division of their leadership.

The authority is in a uniquely precarious position. In addition to being the only government in the region to lack a military and have no sovereignty over its territory, its very institutions are of questionable legal and political status.

Abbas’ term has technically expired, and the Palestinian Parliament is essentially nonoperational. Compounding matters, the authority also suffers from a debilitating political and geographic division between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Even before the popular uprisings that swept away U.S.-backed rulers in Tunis and Cairo, senior Palestinian officials were acknowledging privately that the authority’s legitimacy was in decline.

What began as a slow leak of the authority’s legitimacy has become a hemorrhage during the past two months. It started with the collapse of U.S. efforts to revive peace talks with Israel and its failure to extend a partial moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in December.

Without the prospect of negotiations, the Palestinian leadership was denied its raison d’être and the primary, if not only, means to satisfy the aspirations of its people.

A few weeks later, Al-Jazeera and The Guardian’s leaking of hundreds of documents detailing a willingness to make concessions to Israel dealt another devastating blow to the authority’s credibility. Finally, Mubarak’s forced resignation on February 11 eliminated the authority’s most powerful Arab ally and chief political patron.

Unfortunately for the group, elections are unlikely to resolve the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy problem.

Hamas has flatly rejected holding any election without a broader agreement on the core issues that divide the two warring factions, most notably reforming and expanding the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization to include Hamas and other factions that don’t yet belong. Although the Fatah-backed authority leadership in Ramallah could still decide to hold elections in the West Bank without Gaza, which accounts for roughly 40% of the authority’s population, such elections would not be seen as credible.

More crucially, elections do not address the fundamental demand of the Palestinian people to end the political stalemate between Fatah and Hamas. To date, neither Hamas nor Fatah has been willing to cooperate except on their own terms.

Hamas will not agree to elections so long as it believes its electoral prospects are weak, as many polls suggest they are. Likewise, Fatah is unlikely to consider genuine reforms such as expanding the PLO unless it believes it can maintain its dominant position within that institution.

To be sure, Gaza’s Hamas government has serious legitimacy problems of its own. Despite its relative success in providing basic law and order in Gaza, the impoverished enclave remains isolated and besieged, while its 1.5 million people have grown increasingly impatient with Hamas’ lack of a long-term plan for ending their plight.

Despite widespread popular sympathy for the Egyptian uprising, both Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank believed it was necessary to suppress local demonstrations in support of the Egyptian people — out of a fear that such expressions of solidarity could morph into displays of anger with their own governments.

Such fears might be well-founded. Leaders of both factions may view their dispute in zero-sum terms, but most Palestinians do not. Just days after Mubarak’s resignation, thousands of Palestinians gathered simultaneously in Ramallah and Gaza to call for an end to the division that has crippled Palestinian politics and eroded public confidence in their leaders for almost four years.

Like their counterparts in neighboring Arab countries, Palestinian youths are using online social media to launch their own “revolution” on March 15 — only the kind of “regime change” they are demanding is not aimed at dismantling the government but at putting it back together.

Despite the Palestinians’ strong desire for unity, the United States and other countries who support the Palestinian Authority financially oppose a power-sharing arrangement that would include Hamas, which they consider a terrorist organization. At a time when the United States is calling on governments around the region to be more responsive to the demands of their people, U.S. opposition to internal Palestinian unity seems incongruous at best.

There are signs of renewed willingness to end the division. But the two factions continue to put off national reconciliation, much as former Tunisian and Egyptian leaders repeatedly postponed political reforms. With popular uprisings spreading from country to country, it might not be long before Palestinians decide to take matters into their own hands and force the governments in Gaza and Ramallah, not to mention Washington, to reconsider.

The erosion of the Palestinian leadership’s legitimacy could be reversed by a breakthrough peace deal that ends the conflict with Israel once and for all. Until then, however, internal Palestinian reconciliation may be the only way to save the Palestinian Authority.