On this day in 2005, Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In his inaugural address, Abbas hailed the “peaceful transfer of authority” and pledged to “start the process of reform…so as to establish the foundations of the Palestinian state to which we aspire.” After a decade of Yasser Arafat’s iron-handed PA rule – with his later years characterized by an armed Palestinian uprising – Abbas seemed a breath of fresh air. Now, however, as he enters the fourteenth year of his four-year presidential term, it is clear that Abbas has reneged on many of his pledges and exacerbated the crisis of corruption and autocracy within the Palestinian Authority.
When Abbas was named the first-ever prime minister of the PA in 2003, it was because Arafat was under intense external pressure to dilute power and broaden the Palestinian political scene. A critic of Arafat, Abbas surrounded himself with like-minded reformists, such as the Western-educated economist Salam Fayyad. It was this contrasting approach to Arafat that endeared him to the Palestinian political elite, and to the West.
After Arafat died in November 2004 and Abbas ascended to the presidency in January 2005, Abbas elevated Fayyad’s institution-building platform to a top national priority. Yet, Abbas also brought with him his own distinct style of nepotism. When Fayyad’s reform agenda ran too close to home – particularly when he challenged Abbas’ bid for statehood the United Nations – he was unceremoniously forced out.
Admittedly, Abbas’ one earnest experiment in political reform was a failure. He pledged to hold legislative elections in his inaugural address in 2005, yet those elections saw Palestinians vote for his rivals in Hamas. Those elections fueled a civil war in 2007 in which Abbas lost the Gaza Strip, a seismic shock that has dictated his presidency since.
Abbas has since increasingly clamped down on civil society, freedom of expression, and the activities of his political rivals. When thousands of PA teachers took to the streets to protest their working conditions, Abbas’ PA forces jailed the leaders and blocked their protest routes. When criticism of his presidency rapidly expanded online, Abbas enacted a draconian cybercrimes legislation that allows him to arrest anyone criticizing him on social media. And when members of his own Fatah faction have challenged his rule, he summarily purged them from the party’s organs.
The result has been political regression in the West Bank. Abbas has eclipsed Arafat in both time as president of the PA and, arguably, in autocratic style. He is answerable to few, if any, Palestinians. If Western officials hope to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, they should start by looking for new reformers to revive the institution-building agenda. They should also begin to hold Abbas to account.
Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Grant on Twitter @GrantRumley.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.