By Sam Bahour
Current events in Egypt and Tunisia have the entire region and beyond glued to their television sets. The all-too-spoken-about Arab street has risen, seemingly from the dead. But while it is satisfying to see a dictatorial head of state being ousted by his own people, it is far too early to rejoice.
What we are witnessing is the removal and replacement of leaders, not an upgrading of the political systems that allowed someone like the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to remain in power for 30 years and then have the audacity to position his son to succeed him, while the Egyptian people sank into deepening poverty. Unrest across the region will force these reactionary regimes to make some minimal changes, such as introducing term limits, which should have been done decades ago. But these knee-jerk legislative changes are solely aimed at persuading the demonstrators to go home.
Likewise, no one should belittle the fact that hundreds of thousands of average citizens are challenging their governments in the streets. This is not like demonstrations as we know them in western countries. It is the real thing. Serious conviction – and sustained repression – is the prerequisite to get many people to challenge a police state that ignores even the most basic human rights.
In the Arab world, civil uprisings – or intifadas, as they are frequently called – were coined in the Palestinian context. However, the context of the first Palestinian intifada was very different to what we are seeing today. Back in 1987 Palestinians genuinely became fed up with the foreign military occupation that Israel maintains to this day. Communities across the West Bank and Gaza took to the streets and sustained their efforts for nearly six years. Demonstrations were only part of the story. The real ingredient to the Palestinians’ ability to remain steadfast was much more complicated. Palestinians are highly political, and they organised themselves in a decentralised fashion and knew how to operate out of Israel’s sight.
But the first intifada was aimed solely at a foreign entity, Israel, and ended with the signing of the infamous Oslo peace accords, which have failed multiple times over the past two decades. The Palestinian leadership tried to pick the fruits of their intifada prematurely and paid a dear price in human, political, economic and social loss.
Egyptians would be well advised to learn from the Palestinians that the window of opportunity for real change comes all too infrequently. They should therefore be very clear on what they desire from this historic episode. I’d guess that the US state department already has more than a few scenarios in place and dealing with these is what the Egyptian people will really be up against in the coming weeks.
The second Palestinian intifada in 2000 had many more similar elements to today’s upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt. Following the collapse of the Camp David II talks and continuing Israeli provocations, the Palestinian street erupted. Although this second uprising was quickly steered to target Israel, the undercurrent at the time was boiling against a Palestinian leadership that was seriously corrupt and refused to shift gear politically, opting instead for a never-ending US-sponsored peace process.
The Palestinian president at the time, Yasser Arafat, knew that the second intifada had the potential to turn on him and the house of cards that he had created, the Palestinian Authority. Arafat knew how to shrewdly get his people to vent their anger elsewhere – towards Israel, the foreign occupier. Arafat thought, like today’s Mubarak and the many other leaders of his generation, that the US would come to his rescue and make things happen. He was wrong. Every major Palestinian political crisis witnessed the traditional Palestinian leadership taking minute steps forward to keep the masses at a distance. Often these steps meant rearranging the cabinet while paying lip service to the demanded structural reforms. Expect the same in Egypt and Tunisia.
Over the years, Palestinians have been able to maintain pressure on their occupier and keep their own quasi-government in check because they were organised at the grassroots level for many years beforehand. This level of deep, sustained organising has been weak to non-existent in most of the Arab world. The police-state governments in Egypt, Tunisia and across the Middle East made sure civil society remained obedient – as the media and the private sector were made to be.
The obvious question is: if Palestinians are so experienced in taking to the streets, why then are there so few serious demonstrations in Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem or Gaza in solidarity with the Egyptian people? The reason is that the Palestinian Authority has been co-opted by a US-dominated and foreign-funded agenda which, in times of crisis, understands a single tool: force. The same applies to the Palestinian government in Gaza, for different reasons. Since the last Palestinian elections, which ended in infighting, the US has equipped, trained and led a new generation of Palestinian security services to serve their old model of Arab world governance – police states and banana republics. Expect the US not to embrace real democracy in the Arab world, but rather to put a new, younger facade on an old and corrupt system of governance.
If you want a barometer for today’s Middle East political temperature, follow Egypt; however, if you want a barometer for tomorrow’s possibilities for serious, sustainable reform, keep your eye on the Palestinian people who are in a dual struggle – one to shed themselves from 43 years of a brutal Israeli occupation and one to create the first Arab model of truly representative and accountable governance. The main factor preventing the Palestinians from continuing on their path to structural reform, following their first genuine elections in 2006, is the refusal of the US to accept the results of those elections. Expect a similar US veto on any forthcoming Egyptian move towards electoral reform that encompasses true representation.
Until the people of the Middle East take reforms seriously and transform their mass demonstrations into sustained, organised efforts that address all aspects of society – political, legislative, economic and social – then the blood and tears invested in this latest round of civil outcry will be wasted.
– Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American freelance business consultant and serves as a Board of Trustees member at Birzeit University. He is also a Director at the Arab Islamic Bank and the community foundation Dalia Association. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit: www.epalestine.com. (This article was first published on guardian.co.uk, February 7, 2011.)