The Winds of Change should shift our sail too

It seems inevitable that other Arabs under equally if not more oppressive regimes than Egypt would catch the revolutionary bug. After the amazing turn of events in Tunisia and then Egypt that saw their decades-long autocrats Zein Al Abedeen Bin Ali and Hosni Mubarak ousted from power, protests have broken out in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and even Bahrain. In Palestine, the first voices of protest are being heard, mostly calling for an end to the political split between Hamas and Fateh, but apparently the West Bank government is taking no chances.

On February 13, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced he would tender the resignations of the cabinet. President Mahmoud Abbas then reappointed Fayyad and asked him to form a new cabinet, a task that would take two weeks. According to PA officials, the reshuffle will entail “major changes”.

Days earlier, on February 10, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat surprised Palestinians with his resignation, saying he felt personally responsible for the Palestine Papers, which were most likely leaked from within his own office.

The breakneck speed at which events are moving in the Arab world have taken everyone by surprise, none the least, the Palestinian Authority. After weeks of apprehension and uncertainty, which initially led to a ban on Palestinian demonstrations in solidarity of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, it seems as if the leadership has decided to put the cart before the horse, so to speak. Make changes now rather than face angry crowds calling for reform.

While it is too early to say for sure where this move will take us, it is worth pondering the thought of whether the move is a good one in any case.

On the surface, it seems as if President Abbas is taking steps similar to those of ousted Egyptian President Mubarak following the first week of the people’s revolution. Our memory is still fresh with scenes of a fraught Mubarak addressing the nation with what he thought were reforms that might quell the fury that had erupted on the streets of his nation. He also disbanded the cabinet, appointed new ministers and later –” in a desperate bid to maintain power –” even delegated some powers to his prime minister. In the end, the reforms were exposed for what they really were –” cosmetic bandages trying to cauterize a deep and bleeding wound.

Is this what the Palestinian leadership is doing now? Is it trying to avoid a repeat of Egypt? To be fair, the rumor mill has been churning for months now about a cabinet reshuffle. Elections, as we all know, are also nothing new. In and of themselves, they are never a bad idea. Neither is resigning when one’s “shelf life” has expired. In that sense, this was the only honorable thing for Erekat to do in light of the scandal of the Palestine Papers. And while he still maintains that most of the documents leaked were tampered with, hopefully his resignation will put an end to the fiasco.

As for an imminent cabinet reshuffle and local and presidential elections in the months to come, the prospect is riddled with problems. For one, Fateh’s rival in the Gaza Strip, Hamas, has rejected the proposition of participating in any such election until national reconciliation is achieved. That would be a reasonable condition if Hamas were willing to compromise on the terms of this reconciliation. But history has been witness to many a botched attempt to put humpty- dumpty back together again. Today, it looks as if Hamas is not looking so much to reconcile with Fateh but to find ways of holding on to their “kingdom” in Gaza, no matter the cost. The fact remains, unfortunately, that without Gaza, no elections will be complete; which means, of course, that we are back to square one.

Whether the sudden jump to reshuffle the cabinet and call for elections is a direct result of the revolutionary tidal wave overtaking the Arab world is still unclear. Regardless, it is time for the leadership to take stock of what it has and hasn’t achieved. Egypt has taught us well that the people are the perfect litmus test for the performance of the government and perhaps this is why the leadership is suddenly eager to make a change. In the Palestinian case, the predicament is two-fold. Not only are we still under an Israeli military occupation that continues to hold us in its iron grip, the people are increasingly dissatisfied with their leaders, be the ones holed up in Gaza or those here in Ramallah. If President Abbas, Salam Fayyad and the cabinet want to retain legitimacy with the people, the PA needs to change in both form and substance. The Palestine Papers were further evidence of what many of us already knew –” that the nearly two decades of negotiations with Israel were a failure. If anything, the leadership should realize it is time to shift course.

Many lessons can be taken away from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, the most important of which is that the leadership should listen to the people, reflect and respect their needs and aspirations and never, never try to pull the wool over their eyes.

The common goal for the West Bank and Gaza leaderships alike must always be an end to the Israeli occupation. Sometimes, we let this goal slip away. If our leaders are able to learn from past mistakes, if they can listen to the voices of change screaming across our Arab world and embrace this for their own good, then not only would they have avoided much of what traditional Arab regimes are facing today, they will be that much stronger in fighting for the ultimate goal of a free and independent Palestine.