Last Friday I walked into Ramallah’s central Al Manara Square, joining hundreds of Palestinians who had come to celebrate the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The crowd cheered and clapped, with people waving Egyptian and Palestinian flags in the air. Led by a group of enthusiastic young adults, people sang songs and yelled slogans in support of the Egyptian people and their efforts. There were no party or factional flags or chants, which was also the case in the demonstrations in Egypt, where the people had made it clear that Egyptians of all walks of life had come together with one unified goal.
As the crowd began to disperse, my friends and I headed to one of Ramallah’s popular bars, which was already filled with people singing and dancing in celebration, only taking a break every now and then to glance at the images of Al Jazeera playing on the muted flat screen televisions. Everyone was inspired and united in their joy for the Egyptian people. We watched the scenes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where Egyptians were taking one night to celebrate before beginning to ask the question “what’s next?”
On Saturday February 5, less than a week before Mubarak stepped down, a rally was held in Ramallah in support of the people of Egypt and Tunisia, as part of an international day of action. One thousand people (with some estimates putting the number closer to 2,000) filled Al Manara Square, before everyone marched down one of Ramallah’s main streets. “The people want the regime to fall,” chanted the crowd, echoing the same slogan which rang loud in the streets of Egypt. People yelled for Mubarak to leave and get out.
The rally was filled with positive energy, hope, and a feeling of inspiration. It was completely peaceful. Once the demonstration had pretty much come to an end and the majority of people had left, a group of men entered the square chanting slogans in support of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), the ruling Palestinian body in the West Bank (I say ruling Palestinian body because in the end, it is the Israeli army that has control and the final say here). Tensions flared and a few people scuffled, before people were quickly dispersed.
The end to this rally can be traced back to the previous Wednesday (three days earlier), when an impromptu demonstration in support of Egypt brought a few hundred Palestinians to Al Manara Square. The PA police quickly moved in to end this rally. People at the scene reported strong physical aggression from the police and many claim they were shoved. Others had their cameras confiscated and a few protesters were arrested. Many questioned whether the PA was infringing on peoples’ right to express themselves freely.
Following the events on Wednesday, people wondered how the PA police would react to the rally on Saturday. This time, they allowed the people to gather and march. The only altercation came at the end, when most of the crowd had already left. People differ in their views on who these instigators were and why they came. No matter what the answers are, it seems clear that the PA does not want to see demonstrations in support of Egypt.
Part of why the PA is worried about signs of support for Egypt is due to the fact that the they had close ties with Mubarak. The other main reason is because the PA’s rule in the West Bank has become more and more authoritarian. PA legislative elections have been postponed and President Abbas’ term legally ended in 2009. While there are different arguments about why elections have not been held, none are more important than the fact that there is no unity between Fatah and Hamas, making elections which include all Palestinians (in the West Bank and Gaza) impossible. Regardless of the reasons, the reality is one where the PA continues to maintain authority without elections. (It is important to note that following what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, the PA just called for legislative and presidential elections before September and reports say they will dissolve the current cabinet next week).
Adding to the fact that there have not been elections is the nature of the United States’ aid to the PA, which has largely focused on building its police force. This is supported by Israel as well. A strong police force benefits Israel, as they can turn to the Palestinians themselves to fulfill many of their security measures. At the same time, Israel can argue that they are lessening the occupation, because they in turn undertake fewer direct security missions themselves. A growing number of Palestinians, however, feel the PA police force is becoming a puppet for the Israelis, taking up many activities that have been associated with the occupation and Israeli army. I have spoken to Palestinians, for example, who are pained to see their own people, rather than the Israeli army, now arresting other Palestinians for political reasons.
Many people who were present at the Wednesday demonstration that was broken up believe that the growing authoritarianism and police presence explains why the PA is wary of rallies for the people of Tunisia and Egypt. Yet, while people are largely united in their support of the revolutions, their feelings about the PA and opinions about its recent actions are far from unanimous. The views about the PA which I outlined above represent some people, but other Palestinians feel very differently.
Palestinians disagree when discussing how demonstrations were broken up on that Wednesday evening. Some say it was violent while others dispute the amount of force used. Some say that people here have freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate under the PA, while others say this is not the case or that when the PA prevents demonstrations, it is for the purpose of keeping order. Some say the PA is an authoritative governing body, while others argue they are the only legitimate group that represents the Palestinians. Many people are somewhere in the middle.
The developments in Egypt and Tunisia clearly have brought people together and inspired the majority of Palestinians. At the same time, these events have also brought to the surface a growing debate in Palestine, in which people are far from united. With so much going on in the region, this mix of excitement and disagreement is one of the biggest ripple effects which can be felt today in Ramallah.
Zeek Editor’s Note: This essay was reposted with permission from Ramallah Reflections. Be sure to get the RSS feed for this terrific blog. In coming days, the author will be posting on the Palestinian reaction to the Palestine Papers.
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