Twelve Fatah members huddle around electric heaters in the lobby of Ramallah's Casablanca Hotel contemplating their party's grim future. Gunmen linked to the oldest and traditionally strongest Palestinian faction had taken over five government buildings on Wednesday, kidnapped foreigners and lobbed rockets into Israel. Fatah's leader, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, seemed helpless to stop them. Split by two rival factions, one of them the Future Party headed by jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, Fatah seems on the verge of collapse, say the members warming their hands over heaters. "And now this," spits Bassem al-Azuni, 35, a Fatah member from the West Bank town of Salfit, referring to Future's merger with "old" Fatah. The two factions, representing Fatah's young guard and its old guard, would run on a joint list in the national Palestinian elections on January 25. The list includes three top spots for members of the old guard - PLO apparatchiks that would likely not fare well in direct voting by the people. "The newly weakened Fatah will bring a civil war [between the rival Fatah factions]," says al-Azuni from the Casablanca, Future's temporary headquarters. Founded in 1959 by Yasser Arafat, Fatah spearheaded Palestinian national aspirations. Much of Palestinian society - street sweepers, soldiers, even the families of those who died fighting Israel - receives some sort of salary from Fatah. The party dominated politics for decades, but internal strife and the rebellion of the young guard (who fought in both intifadas) against their older comrades (who spent most of their lives in exile) is bubbling over. "Fatah's leadership is old and Alzheimer-ridden," continues al-Azuni. "This list is proof of Fatah's sickness." The absence of Arafat, whose charisma held Fatah's loosely fitting factions together over the years, is more strongly felt now, adds al-Azuni, than right after his death. Al-Azuni is hushed by some of the Fatah security men sitting next to him. One of them, Yousef Ozrail, tries to correct him: "Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win a war." Leading members of the Future Party tried to put a brighter face on the agreement between the old and young guards to merge the two lists of candidates. "We are proceeding united to achieve victory for Fatah," Muhammad Dahlan said at a Wednesday press conference announcing Future's withdrawal of its bid to run separately. Ahmed Ghneim, one of the engineers of the old-young guard agreement, notes in an interview at the Casablanca that while things look bleak, "there is a real debate and real change in Fatah for the first time in its history." Minutes earlier he determinedly walked into the Casablanca to give the Future activists, youngish men like al-Azuni, and even a handful of young women, a pep talk. But it had the tenor of a eulogy. "I ask you to be optimistic," he entreats the nearly 50 activists now congregated in the lobby. "We will continue to struggle until we reach democracy." The road to democracy, Ghneim admits afterwards, is a long one. Hierarchical and bureaucratic, Fatah politics seem incomprehensible to most outsiders and voters alike. "It is so complex that sometimes I feel I don't even understand how things work," says Ghneim. Put simply, Dr. Guy Behor, a Middle East expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, calls Fatah's internal strife "a catastrophe for Fatah's mainstream." Israel agreed to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 "so that the PA will fight Hamas and the Islamic Jihad," says Behor. Fatah's collapse and Hamas's success in the polls "will give [Hamas] a huge role in running the Palestinian Authority." Hani al-Masri, an independent candidate from Nablus, reckons that "if Fatah collapses, the Palestinian national project collapses." In his city of Nablus, notes al-Masri, Hamas took 11 of 13 city council seats and also gained hold of the student government at al-Najah University in elections earlier this month. Voters are "disgusted with Fatah, which has become a model for corruption," he adds. Ghneim admits that Hamas has done a better job in administering Palestinian towns and cities. But "it has no long term political program, has no views of what a future Palestinian state would look like, no notion of where to put a capital, the economy." That may be true, says Fatah's al-Azuni, "but for the past 45 years Fatah has taught us how to struggle. Now it will have to learn how to cede the Palestinian Authority [to Hamas]."