"The Future is on Our Side"

An Interview with Mustafa Barghouthi

by James E. Bishara
published in MER234

Mustafa Barghouthi is the secretary and co-founder of the Palestinian National Initiative (Mubadara), formed in 2002 to advocate for an immediate end to the occupation of Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967, a Palestinian state on those territories, and expedited reform of Palestinian Authority governance. Mubadara called from its formation for “free, democratic elections for all political posts” in the Palestinian Authority (PA). A physician, Barghouthi is the long-time president of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees and founder of the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute, a think tank focused on public health and public policy and based in Ramallah in the West Bank. During the second Palestinian intifada, he helped to organize the Grassroots International Protection for the Palestinian People program, which, like the International Solidarity Movement, brings activists from around the world to the Occupied Territories to bear witness to and attempt to deter Israeli army and settler violence directed at Palestinian civilians. Mustafa Barghouthi was a candidate for president in the Palestinian election held on January 9, 2005. He finished second to President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). James E. Bishara, an editor of Middle East Report, spoke with Barghouthi on February 20, 2005.

What did the January 9 election mean and what did it not mean?

It meant the beginning of a democratic system in Palestine. This was probably the first democratic election, or democratic competition, to take place in the Arab world, not just in Palestine, maybe since the time of the first caliphate. I think it had a very serious impact, not just on the future of Palestine but on the neighboring Arab countries as well. This is a beginning -- an important beginning -- for establishing a democratic state, for ending one-party rule and for affirming democratic elections as a way to effect the changeover of power through peaceful means. I do not think that we really had a free democratic election in 1996. Nobody really competed with Yasser Arafat. I was taken seriously by Fatah, which considered me a real threat to Abu Mazen, and that is why we had a truly competitive, democratic election. For the first time in any Arab country, there is a leader of a democratic opposition competing for the top level of authority. We were hoping that these elections would be an instrument of change in the Palestinian system and the Palestinian Authority. That did not happen. Of course, it was not easy for that to happen, since the governing party Fatah’s candidate was supported by practically every government in the region -- and definitely by the United States. He controlled all the resources of the state and he used them. Still, we [Mubadara] managed to get 20 percent of the official vote. We know we got more, because there were additional votes at the end of the day, when the Central Election Commission was forced to change the rules [to quell Fatah’s concerns about low turnout]. We think that 70,000 votes were added, which made a 10 percent difference [in the outcome]. So we could have gotten something between 27 and 32 percent. But even 20 percent is substantial for a new democratic movement that was established only two and a half years ago. The largest achievement is that we showed that the stereotype about Palestinians being divided between Hamas fundamentalists and the Fatah governing party is not correct. There is a huge majority in the middle, which we estimate to be 45–50 percent of the population. This chunk in the middle wants a democratic alternative. I think the future is on our side.

What were your goals in entering the election?

First of all, to show people that there is a democratic alternative -- one that is honest, decent, against corruption, loyal to the Palestinian national cause and our right to freedom and independence, and ready to represent the public interest. After the election, our support is increasing rather than decreasing. There was an exit poll done by the Shiqaqi institute that compared who voted for Abu Mazen to who voted for us. The older people voted for Abu Mazen; our voters were on the younger side. Those who are more educated voted for us. Those in favor of immediate end to all forms of corruption voted for us. Those who are loyal to the Palestinian struggle and the necessity of [dealing with final status issues] to end the conflict voted for us. Those who want fast relief [from the intensified Israeli occupation] voted for Abu Mazen. We clearly had stronger support among women. Those employed by the government voted for Abu Mazen; those working in other sectors voted for us. Without the government apparatus, Abu Mazen could not have made it. One woman in a refugee camp said she voted for me. When asked why, she said, “I was voting for the future.” The media -- including the Arab satellite channels -- were completely biased. They were trying to mask what happened, although it was like a major earthquake here. It is really important for people like you to bring to the attention of the international media the presence of a democratic alternative in Palestine. It is really terrible that before the elections we had this blackout about our movement. You only heard about Hamas and Fatah. Even after this wonderful campaign, although I was runner-up to Abu Mazen, all they mention is Hamas and Fatah -- ignoring the reality of Palestinian society.

What challenges did your candidacy face?

The major challenge was the intervention of the occupation. I was detained or arrested or beaten by the Israeli army eight times within six weeks, including two arrests in Jerusalem. I was practically prevented from campaigning in Jerusalem. My access to Gaza was obstructed for a very long time. Campaigning was crucial for me; we got more votes in the places I managed to visit. I admire the role that Arab satellite channels have played during the last ten years, but when it came to the Palestinian election they failed drastically. From the beginning, they were totally biased toward Abu Mazen. Obviously, they received some government orders. I thought they would be more professional. Another challenge was how to unify different democratic forces around us. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine joined us eventually, and we had social movements like workers’ committees in Gaza and community civil society groups. It was a big challenge, and now the biggest challenge is how to build on it. Both Fatah and Hamas rely on patronage, and the government apparatus in Palestine has become, to a large extent, a huge structure for political patronage. You don’t get employed unless you’re from Fatah, you don’t get promoted unless you’re from Fatah, you don’t get a scholarship unless you’re from Fatah. Challenging that was not easy. In a way, we were trying to convince the people that we represent a new era, in the sense that democracy means passing from clientelism in politics to representing people’s interests.

How will Mubadara build on its relative success?

Our main weak point was that we did not have a strong enough organization, and this is what we are trying to build now. The majority of our supporters are young people, and 80 percent of the Palestinian population are below the age of 33. So we are on the right track. We are building a women’s organization as well. The question is: how do we build an organization that is strong yet flexible? How do we build an organization in a society used to political parties being factions that act like tribes? What helps us is our experience in building grassroots movements [during the 1987–1993 intifada]. A lot of the volunteer spirit that prevailed then was spoiled by the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. So how do we get back to that?

What can we make of the fact that the US and Israel endorsed Abu Mazen tacitly and overtly?

Israel does not want a true democracy in Palestine, because a strong democratic Palestine means a stronger Palestinian cause. Israel does not want to see an independent Palestinian state. They want the PA to be a security subagent for Israel. They think Abu Mazen would make concessions to Israel that I wouldn’t accept -- not because I wouldn’t want peace, but because I want real peace and what they want is interim deals in the style of Oslo. The position of the United States is very much based on the Israeli position. Israel’s advocacy of Abu Mazen was an instrument of pressure upon the people, who are squeezed by checkpoints and terrible hardship, including severe poverty in the Occupied Territories. All of that pushed people to vote in a certain way because they want fast relief -- understandably. But time will show very quickly that fast relief does not exist. What we really need is to end the occupation.

What can Abu Mazen achieve as president?

I do not think Abu Mazen can achieve much with the Israelis. The show in Sharm al-Sheikh [the February 8 summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] was an indication of that. Israel refused even to declare that it would implement the “road map.” The negotiations that are happening now are going in the wrong direction. They’re repeating all the mistakes that happened in Oslo and after Oslo. Basically, Israel is not giving up anything; it is reconsolidating its occupation in the form of apartheid. In that sense, Abu Mazen is really stuck. He can do four things. First of all, he can implement immediate and complete reform of the Palestinian Authority and cabinet, establish a truly independent judiciary system and establish an interim government that is clean, honest and professional to prepare the ground for free democratic elections in July for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Second, he can remove all those who are corrupt and take them through the proper judicial system. None of that is happening. He spoke about reform but we are not seeing any kind of reform on the ground. On the contrary, we are seeing a consolidation of the same old system with the same old faces that have not changed for 11 years. These things will affect the reputation of Abu Mazen and his government. He cannot have a grace period forever. The third thing he can and should work on, if he wants to, is challenging Israel on the wall [being built in the West Bank] and combining the Palestinian struggle we are conducting at the grassroots level, which is a peaceful non-violent struggle, with strong international solidarity. This is the weakest point of Israeli policy. We should proceed with taking the International Court of Justice decision [declaring the wall illegal] to the UN Security Council. If there is a veto there, take it to the General Assembly. Simply take the initiative away from the Israelis. Finally, he should call for an international peace conference based on UN resolutions.

What do you think about the future of party and factional politics in Palestine?

Well, I’m proud to be one of those relatively young leaders, hopefully of the future. There is a crowd of young Palestinians who want a form of politics that is not factional, does not rely on quota systems and wants to represent people rather than buy their support. I think that this is the future. One of our biggest difficulties is intervention from external forces in our affairs, but I’m sure we will manage. The Palestinian people are a people who have struggled hard. They have a quiet and impressive level of political consciousness and knowledge, and I hope this will be reflected in the new generation of young leaders. That’s why we emphasize a lot of our work on younger people and giving them knowledge and experience. That’s why I’m so proud that many of the people in our presidential campaign were young people. We had young women of 22, and young men of 23 and 24, who held very sensitive and important positions and played a very important role. When I look at them and see how fast they develop, my heart becomes full of hope that the future will be better for all of them.

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