Comic tragedy of Palestinian ‘democracy’

Western-style democracy cannot take root in Arab, Islamic worlds

The Middle East has built-in challenges that make bringing democracy to Arab and Islamic World almost impossible.


But, like in the Palestinian territories, it doesn’t mean we won’t keep trying.


I know Palestinian politics first hand.


American Palestinians have tried and failed three times to establish an effective democratic organization called the Palestinian American Congress.


The PAC did succeed in establishing the framework for democracy, creating chapters in 22 American cities, with the largest in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Newark, Dallas, Houston and Orlando.


But the frameworks are not democracies.


In Western democracy, the majority of people vote based on the appeal of issues and party platforms, not on allegiances to personality or religious factors.


In the Arab and Muslim World, there are two models that stand in the way of real “democracy." The first is the secular model, which is based on personality loyalty and “managed” elections. The second is the religious model, common in Lebanon and Iraq, based on religious affiliation.


The election process in Palestine reflects the clash of these two models and the absence of true democracy.


Palestinian politics is divided on one level between secular and religious movements, and the secular groups are also divided. The religious fanatics are more dangerous than the secular activists because while secular activists can embrace the notion of compromise, religious fanatics act out of faith and can never compromise.


There are four main Palestinian groups. The largest secular group is Fatah which has controlled the Palestinians for most of their political existence. They are fiercely loyal to personalities, the strongest being Yasser Arafat. Arafat was a heroic revolutionary who failed as a government bureaucrat.


The second secular group is referred to as the “Jabha,” or “Front.” These are rejectionists dedicated to the personality of George Habash and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They are controlled by Syria.


Hamas refused to participate


The third group is the religious fundamentalists who support Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In the late 1970s, Israel helped them get on their feet in the Gaza Strip as a means of competing with Arafat’s secular PLO. Israelis didn’t anticipate they inadvertently helped give Sheik Yassin the base from which he later launched Hamas.


Fatah, Jabha and Hamas all have a financed and American-based leadership. They are not elected. They are appointed, which explains why the goal of democracy was doomed to fail from the beginning.


The final group includes the “independents.” These include Americanized Palestinians or outcasts from the other dominant factions.


The Fatah, Jabha and Hamas factions rarely agree on anything. How they turned to me as an “independent” happened quite by accident.


When Chicago formed its chapter in March 1995, more than 200 Palestinians attended.


The Hamas faction refused to participate. Hamas always boycotts elections unless they believe ahead of time that they will win.


The Jabha group was divided. Some supported the PAC while the majority saw it as a clever Fatah strategy to destroy the Jabha.


‘Jew traitor’


The election was held at a Muslim school to appease the Hamas. But Hamas rejectionists disrupted the meeting by pulling the fire alarm. The loud siren wailed and the lights flashed on and off like a scene from the movie "Apocalypse Now" - everyone sat in the dark confusion until the fire department finally showed up 45 minutes later.


That’s when I took the stage and asked, “Does it bother anyone that as we bicker, it took the fire department 45 minutes to respond to a fire call? It’s almost as if they wanted this place to burn down.”


That speech got me elected to the Chicago chapter, with the largest vote. I was later elected national president at the national convention hosted in Chicago in June 1995.


Hamas reacted to me by issuing a statement in their national newspaper az-Zaitouna, “Electing Ray Hanania, who is Christian, as National President of the Palestinian American Congress is like electing a black person president of the United States.”


But it was the younger Fatah rebels who were the angriest. They felt betrayed by the older generation because they were not given control. It wasn’t about corruption. It was about selfish political power.


The Jabha and Hamas factions did everything they could to prevent my board from leading. The Fatah factions tried to control me, especially because I embraced the so-called peace process, something they all denounced as “normalization” with Israel.


Hamas said I was a "Jew traitor.” The Jabha said I was naïve because I opposed all violence.


I didn’t run for re-election, mainly because I believed we had to end the “President for Life” cult syndrome that chokes our community.


Democracy never had a chance because it was never intended. My successor was a Fatah loyalist who became a “President for Life,” serving until the PAC came crashing down. At least he did get appointed to the Palestine National Council.


Is democracy possible in the Arab and Islamic worlds?


Not in it’s Western form.


Ray Hanania writes exclusively for Ynetnews on serious and humorous topics. He can be reached at 


פרסום ראשון: 12.02.05, 22:40
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