George Hale reports in Ma’an that the Palestinian Authority has been forcing Internet service providers to block websites critical of Mahmoud Abbas on the orders of the attorney general, who is getting his marching orders either from PA intelligence or from Abbas’s office directly. This is sadly not at all surprising coming on the heels of arrests of journalists for criticizing Abbas on Facebook, and is the latest reminder that while the PA may look benign compared to its more radical cousin in Gaza, it is not and never has been a democratic organization, nor is it a paragon of liberal values.
The question is why is this taking place now, and as with so much of this type of behavior, the answer is internal Palestinian politics. Hale notes that the sites being shut down are perceived to be in Muhammad Dahlan’s camp, and since Dahlan is Abbas’s fiercest and oldest rival, Abbas has missed few opportunities to harass him every chance he gets. Eliminating rivals has taken on greater urgency, however, as calls grow for the indefinitely postponed Palestinian elections to actually be held at some point soon. No date has been set, but events on the ground indicate that Abbas is preparing for an election that he anticipates will take place by the end of the year. The shutting down of sites loyal to Dahlan is part of the general crackdown on dissent and criticism of Abbas that is being carried out against journalists, bloggers, and private citizens. These measures have intensified and suggest that Abbas is more worried now about public opinion than he has been in the past.
Dahlan is also not the only potential rival being targeted. The recent contretemps between Abbas and Fayyad, initiated by Abbas trying to embarrass his prime minister by having him meet with Netanyahu on Palestinian Prisoners Day and now having degenerated to the point where Abbas refuses to be on speaking terms with Fayyad, is also borne out of internal Palestinian politics. There are rumblings that Fayyad might challenge Abbas and run for president, and even though Fayyad has no real base of support and would likely lose, his popularity with foreign governments and the international community still makes him a dangerous threat to Abbas. Unlike Dahlan, who is basically a gangster chieftain, Fayyad cannot be compromised or endlessly investigated, so Abbas’s options for discrediting him are limited to trying to make him look foolish and like an Israeli stooge, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to try. And of course, Abbas is doing everything he can to root out support for Hamas in the West Bank, which presents the ultimate threat to his continued rule over the PA.
Taken together, I think this means that Abbas knows something we don’t, and that elections are more imminent than anyone thinks. The Arab Spring and elections in Tunisia and Egypt make it harder for the PA to keep on pushing them off, and Abbas’s actions look to me like classic campaigning in an electoral authoritarian state. Expect more reports of decidedly illiberal behavior on Abbas’s part for the rest of the year, or until elections are held (if ever). When Abbas took over the PA’s reins following Arafat’s death, there was a perception that he was quiet and mild mannered and had no real interest in staying in power for long. Turns out that being Palestinian president is a decent gig, and like authoritarians everywhere, Abbas is willing to fight dirty to hang on to his job.