To my surprise, though perfectly according to plan, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turned up in Cairo this morning to meet Field Marshall Tantawy, who as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] of Egypt was handed the country when Husni Mubarak was forced to step down last February.
Abbas meeting Tantawi – photo via PalTelegraph here – presumably taken today
Apparently, Abbas arrived in Egypt Tuesday night. He had to have travelled via Jordan — he certainly didn’t fly from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, and he didn’t drive through Gaza.
In the midst of chaos in [some, main] Egyptian streets, Abbas is supposed be on a four-day visit to Cairo, despite the chaos in the streets, and will meet Khaled Meshaal of Hamas tomorrow, after years of Egyptian negotiations to effect a “reconciliation” between Hamas and Fatah…
To go ahead with the reconciliation in the coming days, Abbas and Meshaal will have to ignore the sheer mayhem and brutality in the streets of Cairo and several other Egyptian cities, where vast quantities of what is reported to be an enhanced variety of tear gas has been mercilessly fired upon protesting citizens who are demanding a transition to civilian rule. and on uninvolved bystanders alike.
Egyptian military leaders are saying that “hidden forces” are behind the worst violence and the many civilian deaths — and not the military, which says it is responsible only for the tear gas…
One thing Abbas’ arrival in Cairo does mean is that Abbas was in Jordan on Tuesday, a day after receiving King Abdallah II in Ramallah on Monday. [Did they meet again?]
King Abdallah’s “historical” visit was announced late on Sunday, and the whole thing is still a big mystery — more to come in a separate post. The King flew by helicopter to Ramallah, and landed in the grounds of the Muqata’a Presidential palace. When the King flew back to Amman, he met almost immediately with U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns — who himself had met Abbas on Sunday, and then with Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu on Monday morning, perhaps just before Abdallah arrived in Ramallah… And, there is no way that the Jordanian monarch could have flown across the West Bank without full Israeli approval.
The link between these events is: elections.
The proposed Fatah-Hamas reconciliation is supposed to involve agreement on new Palestinian elections — perhaps by next May — to overcome the split that followed the Hamas rout of Fatah/Palestinian Preventive Security Forces, which an infuriated Mahmoud Abbas called a “military coup”, just before carrying out his own retaliatory political coup by dissolving a very short-lived National Unity government headed by Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh. Abbas then appointed Salam Fayyad as Prime Minister of an “Emergency Government” which has basically remained in power until today [despite permutations].
Now, Hamas is reportedly still opposed to Fayyad continuing as Prime Minister, after the reconciliation — and there has been speculation that a replacement may soon be named [the most recent speculation involved Dr. Mohammed Mustafa, Economic Adviser to Abbas + head of the, um, non-governmental Palestine Investment Fund]. A new Palestinian Authority/PLO government would be composed only of “technocrats” [meaning, no one associated with Hamas, which would mean the re-imposition of strong new financial and other sanctions — that is, unless Hamas meets the “Quartet conditions: recognition of Israel, or its “right to exist”; renunciation of violence, and allegience to all previous agreements made by the PLO.
A new technocratic government would be charged with overseeing a transition to new elections.
UPDATE: It was reported from Cairo on Thursday morning, just before the Abbas-Meshaal reconciliation talks began, that the naming of a new Prime Minister would not be on the immediate agenda…]
Since the violent Hamas-Fatah break-up in June 2007, Mahmoud Abbas has, insisted on a return to the status quo ante as a prerequisite for any reconciliation with Hamas, meaning that Hamas must know its place, and not rule as a rival regime in Gaza.
By the terms of a previous reconciliation — the Cairo 2005 agreement — Hamas was supposed to be integrated into the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], in which Mahmoud Abbas has been Chairman of the Executive Committee since the death of Yasser Arafat in a hospital in Paris in November 2004.
[Abbas, like Arafat before him, has consolidated his hold on all three reins of Palestinian political power. Abbas is also the head, by acclamation, of Fatah, which is the largest Palestinian political movement. And he is the elected head of the Palestinian Authority, established by agreement bween the PLO + Israel under the Oslo Accords, which Hamas opposes — but Abbas’ term of office expired either in January 2009 or in January 2010, depending on which legalistic argument one backs. So, when there are new reports of Abbas resigning, the question has to be asked: from what, exactly? The PLO, Fatah, or just the PA? In any case, Abbas has also said, previously, that he will remain in office until there are new elections.]
Hamas agreed to join the PLO — but has argued that it should have a percentage of seats in the PLO’s Palestine National Council [PNC] that would be proportional to the number of seats it won in 2006 elections for the PA’s Legislative Council [PLC] — in other words, over 60 percent.
Fatah was outraged — and Fatah officials maintained in recent years that they would never agree to Hamas having anything more than 25% of seats in the PNC.
The mandate for the 2006 PLO has also expired, without ever having many meetings, both because Israel arrested so many Hamas-affiliated parliamentarians that a quorum could not be met, but also because of the huge rift between Hamas and Fatah…
And Abbas has ruled by Presidential decree — which some fastidious Palestinian libertarians have quietly criticized.
Meanwhile, Abbas has cancelled Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections that he called for 24 January 2010, and he has also twice scheduled, and cancelled, local or municipality elections.
One of the major demands of the Palestinian “youth demonstrations”, whicht began in honor of the January 25 movement that filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square in Egypt [until Mubarak resigned in February], was an end to the Fatah-Hamas split.
Another of the demands was to hold elections — for the first time, ever — among Palestinians everywhere [and not just in the West Bank + Gaza] for the PLO’s National Council.
The reconciliation agreement signed in Cairo in May, and today’s follow-up “summit” [more than 6 months later] between Abbas + Meshall in Cairo was initially viewed as a response to the Palestinian “youth demonstrations” and to the “Arab Spring” developments in the region. [One reason the reconciliation summit was delayed was to protect, or insulate, the “UN bid” from reprisals — which have since been imposed anyway, after the UNESCO vote to admit Palestine as a full member state nearly one month ago...]
In other, separate developments, Egyptians were supposed to begin voting on Monday 28 November in the first round of their new Parliamentary elections… though the preparations process has been rather back-room and secretive.
And tonight, Egypt’s Interior Minister called for a postponement due to the situation in the country.
UPDATE: On Thursday, a group of Egyptian political parties also called for a postponement of elections.
But, in reaction to the terrible violence over the last couple of days, the call in Tahrir Square has been, again: “Irhal” — Go. Just go. Get out.
There is not a unified position on cancelling elections now.
So now, here are a few thoughts: is it just possible that a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation in Cairo tomorrow might have enough overwhelming popular appeal and regional magic to distract, and stop the bloodshed in Egypt?
By the same time tomorrow night, after all the violence and suffering and human loss in this region, will everything seem better [and not worse]?
Reality check: The U.S. is lobbying strongly against any reconciliation Palestinian government, which would mean a move toward new Palestinian elections [the visit of Burns to the region on Sunday + Monday was reportedly about that, and about the “UN bid” that Mahmoud Abbas filed in New York on 23 September for full UN membership]. At stake is another full-scale imposition of economic sanctions that will have a devastating impact on the situation in the West Bank, despite defiant Palestinian statements.
There is, of course, a major contradiction, at least in democracies, between supporting elections [as U.S. President George W. Bush did, prior to the 2006 Palestinian elections in which Hamas won a majority of seats in the PLC, dismissing some worry about the lack of Fatah popularity, and the possibility of Hamas gains], and then imposing sanctions because of who wins.
But, the U.S. is still calling for Egyptian elections.
Mark Toner, a U.S. State Dept spox, did so in an exchange with journalists at the daily briefing in Washington:
“QUESTION: And you remain confident that this election will go on on time?
MR. TONER: We continue to believe that it can go on, yeah.
QUESTION: Are you still —
QUESTION: (Inaudible) boycott the vote given the amount of violence and their distrust of the military?
MR. TONER: Again, as Field Marshal Tantawi said yesterday, this is – he provided a path that talked about these elections, talked about a newly appointed civilian government, as well as a full transition to – or presidential elections by next summer. And this is the way that Egyptians can create the kind of democracy for which they’re protesting in Tahrir Square. It’s extremely important that they exercise their right to vote … He [Tantawi] did pledge to appoint a new cabinet and to hold presidential elections, as I talked – as I said, and proceed with parliamentary elections as planned. We believe that’s important. We also believe that it’s important that the SCAF ensure that free and fair elections proceed expeditiously, and that their security of these elections is ensured, and that – in an environment that’s free from any intimidation, and that
this newly appointed civilian government be able to exercise real executive power immediately … What’s important, as I said, is that these elections be seen by the Egyptian people as credible and transparent. That’s the responsibility of the SCAF, to create that kind of atmosphere and that kind of environment, so that they’re – that these elections can be taken seriously by the Egyptian people, and again, building towards eventual presidential elections, a new constitution, et cetera, that will result in a true democracy for Egypt … And so we’re engaged with the Egyptian authorities. Again, our goal here is to provide whatever support we can so that credible, transparent elections can take place. But ultimately, this is something that the
Egyptian people need to see done”.
The briefing transcript can be read in full here.
But, what about the Palestinian people?