Why Abbas and Abdullah are scrambling
Even as Hosni Mubarak continued to resist the hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators gathering in the center of Cairo Tuesday, two of his Arab counterparts -- Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- were scrambling to react. Abdullah dismissed his government and ordered a newly-appointed prime minister to undertake political reforms; Abbas's Palestinian Authority suddenly announced that long-postponed local elections would be held "as soon as possible."
The announcements may or may not portend serious change. But they are another signal of where the Arab uprising of 2011 is heading. Abbas and Abdullah are political weathervanes in the Middle East -- as weak rulers of weak states (or would-be states), they are quickest to tack when a new wind blows into the region.
Both, in fact, have promised reform before. In 2004-5, when President George W. Bush was pressing his "freedom agenda" for the region, the Palestinian and Jordanian leaders enthusiastically announced they were on board. Abdullah appointed a commission to draw up a ten-year plan for political and economic reform and pledged to make his parliament truly democratic. Abbas first embraced Bush's demand that a new Palestinian state be democratic, then agreed to allow Hamas to participate in legislative elections.
The reforms failed.
Abdullah found that his new parliamentarians -- especially the Islamists among them -- were far less interested in democracy than he was. He shelved the reform plan soon after it was completed. Abbas's legislative elections in January 2006 were a still bigger disaster. When Hamas won a plurality and formed a new Palestinian cabinet, a dismayed Bush administration retreated from the freedom agenda.
Will the push for change this time be any different? I think it might be. This time Abbas and Abdullah are being pressed not by an unpopular U.S. president but by a growing wave of popular unrest in the region. Thousands of people demonstrated in Jordan last week, though the protests so far have not acquired Cairo-style momentum, and have not been aimed at Abdullah. Abbas's authority has been steadily weakening, in part because of his failure to renovate the old guard of his Fatah party.
A West Bank election might do the Palestinian Authority some good; Hamas will probably be excluded and young reformers will have a chance to rise. In Jordan Abdullah may decide that he can gain the broad support for liberalization that he lacked five years ago.
Mubarak, by the way, stoutly resisted Bush's pressure in 2005, just as he is resisting his own people now. In the end he agreed to hold a competitive election for president, but after it was over he imprisoned the man who ran against him, Ayman Nour. Bush in the end yielded to the Egyptian strongman. The demonstrators in Tahrir Square are not likely to give up so easily -- or at least, that is what Abdullah and Abbas clearly think.
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