The first month of 1996 saw election monitors and “democratization” consultants falling over each other in the West Bank. Along with the flood of media witnesses, they certified that, in former President Jimmy Carter’s words, “The Palestinian people had an historic opportunity to choose their leaders yesterday, and they did so with enthusiasm and a high degree of professionalism.”
It is unfortunate that not a fraction of this attention and publicity was devoted to the flagrant violations that accompanied Egypt’s elections two months earlier, on November 29, 1995. On November 23, 54 members of Parliament and other prominent Muslim Brothers who had intended to run for seats were sentenced to prison terms by the Supreme Military Court. During what passed for the campaign, only the ruling National Democratic Party candidates were free from harassment by the security forces. At no point did the US government, which, through the Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy, lavishes funds on all manner of “democracy” projects, see fit to utter a critical word concerning the bad manners of President Husni Mubarak’s political security machine. US media attention was conspicuous by its absence.
In Bahrain, there has been even less media attention given to the ruling Khalifa family’s efforts to suppress — “once and for all,” to use Prime Minister Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa’s delicate phrase — a long-running campaign to restore the elected parliament disbanded by decree in 1975. In November 1994, Amir ‘Isa Bin Salman Al Khalifa refused a petition to this effect signed by hundreds of prominent Bahrainis. Five months of public protests and clashes with Bahrain’s largely mercenary security forces, which began in December 1994, have led to thousands of arrests. A September 1995 report by Amnesty International noted that those arrested are routinely denied any manner of due process, and cited numerous testimonies alleging torture and abuse in custody. The Sunni regime has focused its repression on those critics and protesters who are from the Shi‘i communities (about two thirds of the population). Several Shi‘i religious leaders jailed last spring were released in late September, but the government has refused to discuss popular grievances relating to the constitution and parliament. Protests and clashes erupted anew in early January 1996, and the army has threatened to add martial law to the already long-in-effect state of emergency. The Bahraini regime has received unstinting support for its repressive strategy from various neighboring Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which fears the contagion of revolt, and Jordan and Egypt, which are seeking to ingratiate themselves with their wealthy Gulf neighbors. (Only Qatar, which has a long-standing border dispute with Bahrain, has been a maverick in this regard.) As for the US government, a Clinton administration official told al-Hayat that it endorsed the “responsible actions” of the Bahraini government and its charge that “Iranian elements” were behind the trouble.
The Palestinian elections did produce a strong dose of political legitimacy that Yasser Arafat badly needs prior to the “final status” negotiations with Israel due to begin later this year. Of the 88 seats in the new council, 50 went to official Fatah candidates, and of the 35 independents who won, 16 were Fatah members. But these elections also demonstrated that strong democratic currents run through the Palestinian polity-in-formation. Consider the overwhelming sweep of candidates with records of critical independence vis-à-vis Arafat, such as Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi in Gaza (who got more votes than any other single candidate) and ‘Abd al-Jawad Salih in Ramallah. This support for critics of Arafat was particularly noticeable among the Fatah dissidents who were elected, such as Salah Ta‘amri in Bethlehem and Husam Khadr in Nablus, the first person to be expelled during the intifada. In Ramallah, Qaddura Faris, a 14-year veteran of Israeli prisons, and ‘Abd al-Fattah Hamayl, a long-time member of Fatah’s military wing and a 16-year prison veteran, took more votes than Marwan Barghouti, Fatah’s official leader in the West Bank.
Opposition groups, by and large, boycotted the elections officially, but in Gaza the Islamic National Salvation Party, composed of major Hamas activists, did compete, and three other Hamas leaders ran as independent Islamic candidates. One day before the voting took place in Gaza, an internal document circulated among Hamas members instructing them to vote for “strong candidates.” Hamas leader Isma‘il Haniyya, when asked about Hamas’ performance in the elections, said “it was an eruption of confusion.”
The situation was much the same for the PFLP. The Damascus-based leadership instructed cadres in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to boycott the elections, but it was a decision that commanded no legitimacy on the ground. In the Gaza Strip, Ghazi Abu Jiyab, a prominent PFLP leader, stood on the same list as Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi. In the West Bank, Fu’ad ‘Abd al-Jabir, a PFLP leader in Ramallah, stood on a Fatah slate. According to exit polls, 80-90 percent of PFLP members and supporters voted in these elections despite the decision from Damascus. For all of Arafat’s heavy-handedness, it is notable that Fatah at least did hold primaries. None of the erstwhile leftist opposition groups, whether the PFLP or the Palestine People’s Party (which did participate in the elections) allowed their membership any voice in setting policy or choosing who would stand in their name. It seems almost certain that the official PFLP leadership in Damascus has confirmed its irrelevance to Palestinian politics today, and that the organization will not survive in its pre-election form.
The elections show that a movement of national scope based on democracy, a commitment to human rights and the national aims of the Palestinian people is beginning to take shape. According to one poll, 61 percent of those who voted believed that the new council should have as much say in the upcoming negotiations with Israel as the PLO. More than 66 percent consider freedom of the press and human rights more important than “national security” issues. The question now is whether these democratic streams will be strong enough to develop into popular political parties based upon accountability with clear political and social programs committed to the notion of democratic competition for public positions.