Looking before you leap

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This is getting too close for comfort. Palestinians may very well be experiencing déjà vu today as they listen attentively to the news coming from Egypt. After 13 days of protests, Egyptians are sitting down with the government, albeit a "new" government formed in response to the popular revolt. All the same, the negotiations and the bartering have begun and many Palestinians are holding their breath in uneasy anticipation. They have of course, "been there, done that" with less than desirable results. As they look to their Egyptian brethren, they can only hope the fruits of their efforts will reap more promise.

Members of six opposition groups, some represented in Tahreer Square, some not, held their first talks with newly appointed Egyptian Prime Minister Omar Suleiman on February 6 to hammer out some sort of understanding that would restore calm and order to the country. According to press reports, the negotiations revolved around changes to the constitution, ending the military emergency law in place since President Hosni Mubarak took power in 1981, releasing political prisoners, holding free elections and freeing the media.

While the talks ultimately failed, the cracks in the iron-strong resistance have already started to show. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Egypt since 1954, sat for the talks, which is proof that the political landscape of Egypt is changing – and changing fast. Still, the Brotherhood came out of the meeting saying it rejected the proposals put forth by the government, insisting that nothing could be discussed without Mubarak stepping down.

As the world knows, this has been the single most unrelenting demand of the demonstrators for the past two weeks. It is still the most visible and audible demand in the streets of Egypt and Tahreer Square. Still, talks are on and some in the group have reportedly hinted that as long as reforms are guaranteed, Mubarak could live out his remaining seven months in power.

What next? Will the crowds disperse? The voices of revolt quiet? So far, this does not seem to be the case, just like it was not the case back in 1988 when the Palestinians were determined to continue their Intifada until liberation. The fires of resistance burned out slowly, almost unnoticeably, because they were quietly smothered with the false promises of statehood and freedom.

The two situations are not parallel. Egypt is a sovereign country and is demanding an end to Mubarak’s oppressive regime. Its people want democracy and freedom of expression –” another type of liberation. However, the parallels are in the principles, which make them all the more perilous. The Palestinians remember how premature compromises and diplomacy served to dilute the very argument and cause they were fighting for; how after the deed was done, they wished they had held out, and demanded more, for a bit longer.

Rewind to 1988 and the first months of the Intifada. The scenes were much like those out of Egypt with throngs of people determined to reshape their predetermined fate. We would end the Israeli occupation with our stones and our iron will and we would not retreat until the goal was had. The Intifada, even in its infancy, was a success. It put Palestine back on the map, back in the news and back in the front rows of international arenas after having sat dormant and forgotten.

In retrospect, the momentum of the Intifada was incredible; the unprecedented energy and determination breathed into the people. We thought at the time that nothing could stop us. Our mistake, as it seems now, is that we tamed and caged this energy before it could reap the results we desired. We were too eager, too tired and too easily swayed and we thought freedom was so close we could taste it. We were wrong.

Just months after the Intifada began President Yasser Arafat took the podium of the Palestine National Council in Algiers on November 15, 1988 and declared a Palestinian state on land occupied by Israel in 1967. While Arafat reiterated his support for the continuation of the Intifada, the speech marked the first [official] step towards the path of diplomacy. After that, the Intifada waned and in 1991 the Madrid Conference was held, the first international peace conference launching bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Eventually, this gave way to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the rest, as we all know, is history.

It is impossible to predict what exactly will transpire in Egypt in the coming days and weeks. Perhaps the people in Tahreer Square will hold their ground until Mubarak is "dethroned". Perhaps the fear of returning to their former lives while the regime is still in place is incentive enough to sleep under the tracks of tanks and huddle in makeshift tents between days of protests. Or perhaps the talks will continue –” driving wedges and planting doubts among those who just days ago were hell bent on one goal.

Of course, in the end, only the Egyptians can decide for themselves what is best for their future. Whatever path they choose, they can definitely say they paved it with their own blood, sweat and tears. There is nothing wrong with diplomacy or with negotiating with your opponent. The trick is in getting the timing right. Hence, a word of warning to the wise –” we Palestinians have felt the sting of caving too soon. If we knew what we know today, we would have held out a bit longer before allowing others to carve out this path to nowhere.

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