Democracy’s Challenges are Daunting, Played Out Against the Backdrop of the Limping Peace Process

Fellows Fall 1998

By Betsy Hiel

June 07, 2009

BUREIJ, GAZA STRIP -- In a concrete block shelter, set along a dirt path strewn with garbage, 15 Palestinian youths face each other in a dimly lighted room talking politics.

The moderator of this "Civic Forum," a woman wearing a gray and white floral head scarf, a red sweater, and a black ankle-length skirt stands at a blackboard leading the discussion. On the walls are scrawled nationalistic slogans and a poster of Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority.

"How do you judge whether a society is democratic?" Rukeyia Abu Harbeed asks the students. The youths, some picking at the tattered plastic that covers their desks while others take notes, debate the answer.

"In principle, there should be elections and a multiparty system," answers Sheriff Mayyat, a 21-year-old student at Al-Azhar University. Others insist there must be justice, where no one is beyond the law. Freedom of expression is also mentioned.

The buzz in the Bureij Refugee Camp is more heady than usual, because of the opening of Gaza International Airport on Nov. 24 and the visit last week of President Clinton, powerful symbols for many here of the long-held dream of Palestinian statehood. The opening of Gaza International Airport and President Clinton's visit have sparked conversations about democracy and its future in villages and cities, in restaurants and cafes, in markets and shops.

Palestinians have struggled for 50 years to have a country they can call their own. Although true sovereignty still eludes them, the Palestinians have crossed a threshold on the way to attaining these national aspirations.

SINCE the 1993 Oslo peace accords provided the forum for political negotiations between two sworn enemies, trappings of statehood have multiplied - Palestinian passports (accepted by 80 countries), a flag, license plates, a stock market, a legislature, a supreme court, an airport, even a Palestinian beer.

In unlikely places like a squalid refugee camp in one of the most densely populated places on earth, issues such as elections, citizens rights, freedom of speech, political pluralism are debated in this version of Democracy 101.

To Americans, the ideas may seem obvious. But the Arab world has largely missed the 20th century democracy bandwagon, leading critics to say that the roots of democracy are unable to take hold in such a barren, infertile terrain, ruled by tribal kings and emirs.

"Why do all the Arab leaders, when they become president, stick to their chair until it is rotten?" Mr. Mayyat asks.

The Palestinians, a people long associated in the world's eye with youths throwing stones and burning tires, are looking to buck this trend.

In January, 1996, Palestinians experienced the excitement of their first national elections, which were given a clean bill of health by international observers. More than 80 per cent of eligible Palestinians voted, putting into office the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mr. Arafat, and an 88-member legislative council.

Palestinians then expressed a great sense of optimism, and expectations were high that the new democratic institutions would play an important role in improving their lives.

Nearly three years later, they are struggling to develop a working political system, hoping to join Israel as the only democracies in the region.

The challenges are daunting, played out against the backdrop of the limping peace process, in which new crises erupt every week, straining tortured negotiations to breaking points.

And without the protection of national sovereignty, the continuing Israeli occupation of areas of the Palestinian-claimed lands of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip, seeps into every aspect of Palestinians' lives through humiliation at checkpoints, house demolitions, border closures stunting economic growth, and the ever-present flash points of Israeli settlement activity.

For some, like Yussef Al-Atrash of Hebron, Palestinian democracy is important, but security concerns are foremost. On a rocky hill in the West Bank, where olive trees dot the skyline and shepherds still tend their flocks of sheep and goats, the father of 10 stands near a Red Cross tent covering a tile floor, the only remains of his home, which was demolished by the Israeli army.

"The Palestinians need democracy," he said. "But I hope our future state will guarantee safety."

The Israeli army, Mr. Al-Atrash says, destroyed his family's three-room house in March because he lacked an Israeli permit to build on land that has been in his family for generations. "Every time I go to get a permit, they won't give me one. They say it is agricultural land and shouldn't be built upon."

For others, such as computer repairman Eyad Abu Elwan of the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, the lack of contiguous Palestinian territory is his No. 1 problem, not the kind of government in a future state. He is unable, as are many of Gaza's estimated one million residents, to leave the fenced-in Gaza Strip to visit or work in the West Bank without a hard-to-obtain special permit.

Although 49,000 Palestinian laborers are allowed to work in Israel daily, and 21,000 persons have business permits to work in Israel, only 800 are allowed to travel freely between the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians and foreign analysts say.

"How can I think about what our state will be when I haven't been able to travel to the West Bank for the last four years?" asks Mr. Abu Elwan.

The opening of a safe passageway between Gaza and the West Bank is one of negotiated points in the U.S.-brokered Wye River Agreement that is yet to be implemented.

Economic concerns loom large for many Palestinians, says Munjed Shbat who runs a family-owned travel business in the West Bank town of Ramallah. The former Toledo resident and University of Toledo graduate believes building a democracy is attainable. "But people care less about democracy in relation to the bigger issues of the peace process and whether it is bringing fruits to the Palestinians, as well as their economic well being," he says.

Added to these complex issues are the charges of corruption and mismanagement against the nascent Palestinian Authority. Local and international human rights groups have accused the authority of repressive measures against Palestinians including arrest campaigns, unlawful detentions, excessive force - sometimes resulting in death - and restrictions on the freedom of speech.

As for President Arafat - hardly a Jeffersonian democrat - he is considered by many experts here and abroad to be that of a tribal sheikh, listening to those around him, yet playing one power center off another.

"Arafat runs a tight ship as it were and is clearly authoritarian by our standards," says Georgetown University professor Michael Hudson, who has written books and articles on the Palestinians.

"There isn't the balance of power between the various branches of government," Dr. Hudson said. "It's a strong presidential system without a lot of accountability in which Arafat routinely ignores the advice of the legislature and can be quite rough in punishing journalists."

Only 28 per cent of Palestinians believe that their developing political system is headed toward a democratic form of governance that protects their human rights, according to a recent poll by the independent research house, Center for Palestinian Research and Studies. A larger number, 47 per cent, think that the system is taking a middle ground somewhere between democracy and dictatorship.

Nevertheless, there are democratic currents running through all levels of Palestinian society, experts say. Mr. Arafat derives his popular support because of what he symbolizes - the Palestinian dream of statehood - and less for who he is.

"I don't think most people expect Arafat to deliver a democracy, but they do expect him to deliver a state," says Margaret Zaknoen, Middle East program officer in Ramallah for the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute of International Affairs.

Once there is a Palestinian state, Ms. Zaknoen explains, a constitution could be passed and the decision-making process of the leadership would not be so arbitrary - delineating the lines more carefully between government branches.

For the members of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Legislative Council, nothing is more important than distinguishing that blurred line with the executive. The elected parliament is an 88-member institution that has representatives from four political parties as well as independents; just five seats are occupied by women.

Still in an embryonic stage, the council is taking on the arduous task of building a functional legislative apparatus for future generations. It has been plagued with organizational problems and frustrated in its tenuous relationship with the executive branch. For example, when the PLC boldly demanded that Mr. Arafat sack his ministers, the matter ended in a power struggle. Some PLC members were summarily appointed and given ministerial portfolios.

Unrealistic campaign promises made by political candidates created high expectations that were dashed with the recent struggle between the Palestinian Authority and the PLC.

Those who are closely watching the council's development, however, say it is much too early to give up on the institution. These problems are typical of parliaments in such developing democracies as Cambodia and Eastern Europe, says Keith Shultz, of Associates in Rural Development, Inc., a U.S. based group working on a project to strengthen the legislative capacity of the PLC.

Novice candidates, not enough trained governmental staff, and the lack of infrastructure and equipment are all stumbling blocks that are being slowly overcome.

And the PLC is unique in that the current political situation has curbed its powers, as most other parliaments found around the world have full sovereignty within their borders. Unlike Israel's Knesset, the PLC does not have the power to weigh in on peace process issues, something near and dear to every Palestinian.

Recognizing its shortcomings, members are committed to rectifying the problems. "There is still an ongoing crisis of confidence," admits legislator Hanan Ashrawi, taking a long drag on her cigarette on the steps of the council headquarters, a converted kindergarten in Ramallah.

"We have to work on this very actively," Dr. Ashrawi said, "both internally, in terms of the way the council works, and externally, in its relationship with its constituents." Also must be considered, she says, is an active policy to oversee the implementation of legislation.

To handle voter complaints and restore confidence, 16 offices have been set up in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The parliamentary affairs minister is also actively working as a liaison to smooth relations between the PLC and the executive branch.

Yearning to create their own media institutions, Palestinians jumped at the opportunity afforded them under the Oslo peace accords. Two new Arabic daily newspapers joined the veteran Al-Quds, and there are 15 new television stations, three radio stations, and an assortment of English and Arabic weeklies and magazines.

Although not completely free and independent and timid in their criticism of the Palestinian Authority, the press does cover issues unflattering to officialdom. "We all support the Palestinian Authority, but at the same time we support the opposition. We publish their communiques," says Hafez Barguti, editor of the new Arabic daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida.

The press also plays an important role in the slow process of dismantling the old order of a clan-based society to one in which all citizens have equal rights. But, Mr. Barguti cautions, that will take time. "The small jihad [Arabic for struggle] is to liberate ourselves, the greater jihad is to achieve a democratic society."

The constituents of the new democratic experiment have a long history of civil protest. A recent struggle between the Palestinian security forces and the Fatah movement resulted in the death of 17-year-old Wassim Tarifi and showed they are unlikely to tolerate abuses of the Palestinian leadership. Last October, Ramallah became the scene of daily strikes and marches protesting the excesses of regime.

The Palestinians also are known for their political pluralism, having established during the 30 years of Israeli occupation a network of nongovernmental institutions that serve as the basis for a vibrant civil society today.

Vocal human rights groups are unabashed in their criticism not only of any human rights abuses by Israel, but PA abuses of power as well. "We address the occupation as if the Palestinian Authority doesn't exist and the Palestinian Authority as if the occupation doesn't exist," says Dr. Raj Sourani, director of the prominent Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

These groups dismiss the notion that excuses should be accepted because of the pressures of the peace process. "If the rule of law, democracy, and human rights have been victimized, there will be no peace or security," says Dr. Sourani.

Pro-democracy programs, such as Civic Forum, a spin-off of the National Democratic Institute, raise awareness of democratic concepts, practices, and institutions. This program and others like it are educating a whole slew of young people - tomorrow's potential leaders - with a good grounding in democratic ideas, experts say.

Sophisticated democracy advocates in the elected Palestinian Legislative Council and, even some within the presidentially appointed Palestinian Authority, search for ways to curb the authoritarian tendencies of Mr. Arafat's regime. Intellectuals teaching in the universities and among the professional societies and trade unions have long been organizing and holding internal elections.

Ironically, living next door to Israel's rough and tumble democracy - that Palestinians in the 1967 occupied lands saw but in which they could not participate - has also raised awareness of democratic norms and values. "We are able to see how democracy works in Israel," says Mubarak Awad, director of the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Elections, one of the pro-democracy groups working here. "We are learning and take our cue from Israel."

Palestinians also exhibit a high degree of political savvy in recognizing the state of their new democracy, ranking Palestinian democracy behind that of Israel, the United States, and France, but ahead of Egypt and Jordan, a research poll shows. The Israeli and U.S. democratic systems get high marks not only from those who support the Oslo peace process, but also among supporters of Hamas, the militant group.

"We have all the ingredients [for democracy] in the pressure cooker right now," says Dr. Ali Jarbawi, the director general of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen's Rights. "If the pressure is too high, it might explode. Or, you might have a healthy meal at the end of the day."