A Welcome Precedent

Palestinians watch the uprising in Tunis with joy – and envy.

Palestinian protest 521 (photo credit: Associated press)
Palestinian protest 521
(photo credit: Associated press)
IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME SINCE any event has caused such delight on the Palestinian street as the successful popular uprising against the president in Tunis.
Yet, at the same time, the official response to these events points to a well-known phenomenon in the Arab world: the discrepancy between the popular support for dissident movements and the restraint with which the Palestinian establishment has responded.
While a flood of Palestinian and Arab responses use effusive language – “the will of the people,” “democracy,” “liberty” and “freedom,” with condemnations of “tyranny,” “oppression,” and “corruption” – Palestinian officialdom has remained mum.
Walking through East Jerusalem near the Damascus Gate, I hear people loudly expressing their pleasure as they read the headlines at the newspaper stands and watch the news broadcasts, which are screened on large TVs in the coffee shops. Congratulating each other over what they see as the greatest Arab political achievement of the past few years, the Palestinians cheer the reports about the flight of Tunisian president Zayn al-Abidine Ben Ali and laugh gleefully when they hear that he cannot find a place of refuge.
Hamas and its supporters are the happiest of all. In announcements in Gaza, officials, including Fathi Hamad, Interior Minister in Ismail Haniyeh’s government in Gaza, and Sami Zuheiri, Hamas spokesman, repeatedly used expressions such as, “long live the blessed Tunisian intifada by our Arab brothers, who are sick and tired of the theft, corruption, and deceit” and “the people of Tunis vanquished French imperialism and have helped the Palestinian people in their struggle against the Zionist occupiers.”
Spokesmen for the other Palestinian movements have issued similar statements, using the same effusive language that is so characteristically employed in times of great excitement and joy. Spokesman for the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Daoud Shihab, issued a statement saying, “This is a message to the West and to Israel; this will be the end of a regime that ties itself to the Zionist entity.”
Similarly, the office of the spokesman for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine lauded “this great victory.”
Popular Internet sites in the Arab world also published thousands of congratulatory messages, many from Palestinians throughout the world, praising the freedom fighters in Tunis for their victory over the corrupt and ruthless regime. Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, also reaped their share of praises, for their aid to the masses demonstrating in Tunis, as well as for the disclosures about the corruption in the ruling family revealed by Wikileaks.
According to reports in the Palestinian press in the territories, the public is following the Arab leaders’ confused, panicky responses (except for Libya’s Muamar Qadhafi, who surprisingly stood behind Ben Ali and criticized the Tunisian masses). The Qatari leaders supported the revolt, issuing statements on the Al-Jazeera news network, which is viewed by tens of millions of Arabs throughout the world. The extremist preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is originally from Egypt and broadcasts a religious program on Al-Jazeera also praised the revolt – which is not surprising since it is well-known throughout the Arab world that ousted president Ben Ali had ruthlessly repressed extremist Muslims in Tunisia.
But in contrast to the popular response, official spokespersons in the Palestinian Authority have barely uttered a word, with the exception of Bassam al-Salahi, secretary of the People’s Party (the former Communist party), which is a partner in Mahmoud Abbas’s government. Al-Salahi informed the public that he had phoned his colleagues in Tunis in an expression of solidarity.
The establishment in Ramallah is totally identified with the conservative regimes in Cairo, Amman, Rabat and Riyadh, which are seen by the Palestinian man in the street as corrupt and subservient to the US and the West. There are strong Islamic opposition movements in all of these countries. In Tunis there was a similar regime and ruler but – behold! – the president was gotten rid of while the army stood by. If it happened in Tunis, could it not happen in Ramallah and elsewhere?
THE REBELLION AGAINST THE corruption in Tunis resonates particularly strongly with the Palestinians and it is not difficult to imagine how the residents of the West Bank and Gaza feel. The tales of the corruption of Arab leaders are well-known throughout the region, but the Palestinians, given their particular political and economic situation, are especially receptive to these reports.
Palestinians view themselves as an integral part of the great Arab nation that numbers more than 300 million people and stretches from the Atlantic Ocean alongside Morocco in the west to the Arab (which is how they refer to the Persian) Gulf in the east. The Arab nation and the Arab states possess almost limitless human resources; they have tremendous economic potential, especially in the oilproducing countries, and collectively form one of the strongest political blocs in the world.
And yet, this mighty Arab nation is incapable of dealing with one tiny country – the State of Israel.
Why? Palestinians ask themselves repeatedly. Why can’t the Arab nation deal with Israel? After all, if the Arab nation were to invest even a minute portion of its tremendous capacities, it could rescue the Palestinians from their dire straights. But that they don’t.
And the reason, according to almost every passerby on the Palestinian street, is clear: it is because the Arab regimes are selfish, treacherous, ruthless, corruption-ridden regimes that steal from their own people. This mindset holds that the Arab leaders are merely American puppets, Western lackeys who care more about their private pleasures than they do about the welfare of their people.
In every corner of the Palestinian territories, and, indeed, throughout the Arab world, one can hear fabulous stories about the wealth of these Arab leaders, about the thriving businesses that finance the royal families in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan; about the riches of the “fat cats” (as they are referred to) in Egypt; and, of course, about the corruption that is rife among the heads of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
For years, opposition forces in the Arab world, and especially Arab expats living in Western countries, have been trying to get the stories about the corruption and vice out into the world. Caricatures in the Palestinian press regularly portray Arab leaders as ugly, fat men with large mustaches, dressed in the traditional robes favored by the Saudi and Gulf princes, who care only about their wealth, decadent lifestyle and gambling.
In the past few weeks, the talk of the town on the West Bank has centered on Muhammad Dahlan, who is known to possess great wealth that he accumulated when he was head of the security forces in Gaza and had been spreading rumors that PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s son is also corrupt.
In response, Abbas had Dahlan removed from the leadership of the Fatah and, apparently, tried to sabotage his business dealings.
THE CORRUPTION IN TUNIS now holds a particular interest for Palestinians, thanks to recent Wikileaks revelations regarding the relationship between the late PLO chairman and PA president Yasser Arafat’s widow, Suha, and Leila Tarabelsi, the corrupt wife of deposed Tunisian president Ben Ali.
Suha had been a longtime guest in Ben Ali’s palaces and had been especially close to Tarabelsi, whose family was heavily involved in Tunisian corruption. Suha originally became friendly with the Ben Alis when the Palestinian leadership was exiled to Tunis in the 1980s and she had been a secretary in Arafat’s office. After her marriage to Arafat, Suha lived briefly in Gaza and Ramallah, but quickly left for Paris; after Arafat’s death in 2004, she relocated to Tunis.
Ben Ali granted her a fine home and, in 2006, she took on Tunisian citizenship. At the time, there were even rumors that she was about to marry Balahksan Tarabelsi, Leila’s brother. The marriage never took place, but Suha’s involvement in the presidential family’s lucrative businesses was common knowledge.
According to telegrams sent by the American ambassador in Tunis, revealed by Wikileaks, Suha Arafat and Leila Tarabelsi established an exclusive private school for the rich children of Tunis. But, at some point, the two had a falling out; Suha was expelled from Tunis, her citizenship was revoked and she relocated to Malta, where her brother is the PLO ambassador. The American ambassador wrote that Suha had complained that the row with Leila had cost her “several of her teeth and half a million euro.”
And so it is no surprise that the departure of an Arab leader like Ben Ali in Tunis brings such glee to the Palestinian street – especially since his removal was not brought about by the type of military coup d’état that was once common in the Arab world, but is rather the result of popular demonstrations. To the Palestinians, demonstrations like the ones in Tunis, which the army dared not repress, are legitimate democratic expressions of the will of the people to rid themselves of a cruel dictator.
In Ramallah, there were small demonstrations of support for the Tunisian people, following similar rallies in Jordan and Cairo. The Palestinian demos were generally quiet and there were no outbursts against the PA. After the initial exuberant response, people are waiting to see what will develop in Tunis.
I asked a Palestinian journalist, who requested to remain anonymous, if the demonstrations in Tunis could happen in the West Bank. Absolutely not, he replied, claiming that the Palestinian Authority depends on the Israeli and American security forces, and neither the Israelis nor the Americans would ever allow the Palestinian people to topple the Ramallah regime.