Palestinians who support senior Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan, hold banners and national flags during a protest against President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza City on December 22, 2016. NurPhoto SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.On the evening of 30 November 2016, with the crowd in a party mood and even the ageing members of Fatah’s Central Committee dancing the dabke, Palestinian President and Fatah Chairman Mahmoud Abbas entered the Fatah party congress in Ramallah to deliver his long-awaited opening address.
Afterwards, even his most ardent critics had to admit that the roughly three-hour speech was delivered with youthful confidence and spirit. The message was clear: ignore the reports of ailing health, I am not going anywhere soon.
After the party announced in early October 2016 that it had decided to hold its seventh party congress after a delay of two years – the sixth congress was held in Bethlehem in 2009 – all eyes were on 81 year-old Abbas, who has led Fatah since 2004.
Abbas’ popularity has plummeted in recent years with his political programme of negotiations and his attempts to internationalise the conflict yielding few tangible results. Though he was elected as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2005, his term expired in 2009. Nevertheless, he remains in power and largely rules by decree.
With the party at large seemingly irrelevant, the weeks running up to the congress were dominated by the long-standing rivalry between Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan, the PA’s ex-head of security in the Gaza Strip on whose watch Hamas took over the enclave in 2007.
In the years that followed, a tense and suspicious relationship developed between Abbas and Dahlan, eventually leading to Abbas revoking Dahlan’s membership of the party in 2011. Dahlan, who currently resides in the United Arab Emirates and continues to exert influence over Fatah and the wider Palestinian political scene, stands accused of corruption and misusing public funds for which he was eventually charged in absentia in December 2016.
In recent years, Dahlan has attained an almost mythical status, with his name never far from any disturbance or political division, including recent fighting and unrest in a number of West Bank refugee camps. Dahlan is accused of fermenting unrest to challenge Abbas’ authority and embolden those who seek the President’s downfall.
The accusations of Dahlan’s meddling are certainly not baseless, and Dahlan himself has been keen to fan the flames of his own omnipresence, recently damming Abbas in a series of high-profile interviews and organising a rival political conference in Egypt in October 2016.
But like much of the hysteria in recent weeks, it is hard to know how much power Dahlan actually wields. The inclusion of Dahlan and his supporters, many analysts and onlookers believed, was a pre-requisite to holding the Fatah congress. It was uncertain if Abbas could ignore his arch-rival and his influence both inside the occupied Palestinian territory and in neighbouring Arab states.
The so-called Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates) indeed raised a number of concerns about holding the seventh Fatah congress without prior reconciliation between Dahlan and Abbas. However, Abbas rebutted the Arab Quartet, stood his ground against Dahlan and defied his critics. In a sense, Abbas won.
Between 29 November and 4 December 2016 – during which candidates were elected for the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council – both inside the congress hall and on the surrounding streets of Ramallah, Abbas’ dissidents were nowhere to be seen.
International delegates from over 20 countries arrived and lavished praise on the aging leader, who intermittently nodded in approval. Abbas, “unanimously” elected leader behind closed doors on first day of the congress, had seemingly pulled off a masterstroke.
Dahlan and his supporters have threatened to break away and organise a Fatah conference of their own, but buoyed by the congress, Abbas seems unfazed. Fatah’s highest body, the Central Committee, remains filled with loyalists. Even those who are rumoured to be potential successors, such as Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association, will be kept in check as Abbas soon appoints another four Committee members of his own choosing.
Abbas has good reason to be cheerful. Fatah’s international partners, whose extended speeches of admiration resulted in Abbas postponing his own speech until 30 November, are too exhausted by other crises in the region to desire any immediate change to a relatively easy status-quo.
Despite the steady growth in illegal Israeli settlements and an occupation that subjects “hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to restrictions amounting to collective punishment”, Palestinian suffering is overshadowed in a turbulent Middle East.
Indeed the curiously impassioned speech of Nickolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process – in which he declared that “Fatah is Palestine’s democracy” – highlights a lack of international interest in pursuing political alternatives.
Nonetheless, the appearance of success inside the hall owes much to a number of controversial measures taken behind the scenes. While over 2000 Fatah delegates attended the previous congress in Bethlehem, only 1400 were invited to this year’s gathering. The Fatah leadership was careful to ensure that members outside the accepted Fatah mainstream – vocal critics of Abbas as well as supporters of Dahlan – were not requested to join.
These were not just nominal members of the party either, more than 20 of the 45 Fatah parliamentarians elected to the currently defunct Palestinian Legislative Council were not invited to the congress. And to be on the safe side, the event took place inside the Muqata, the domineering Presidential compound in Ramallah. Holding the congress in the Muqata was an unfortunate reminder of the lack of separation of powers that exists between the PA and the president’s political party.
The elaborate security operation prevented access to adjoining streets guaranteeing that no unwelcomed guests disturbed the party. The security forces reportedly also broke up an alternative gathering organised by excluded Fatah members at the Qalandia Refugee Camp.
The Fatah leadership, with the tacit support of its international backers, has chosen small gains at the cost of an uncertain future. Abbas may have wooed the carefully picked delegates at the congress, but it is unclear how long the public display of unity will last, especially with internal divisions outside the bubble of Ramallah running deep.
If the President cannot extend his support beyond his inner circle of loyalists in the weeks and months to come, it is unlikely that he has done enough to satisfy the public desire for an end to the era of Abbas.