Sunday, August 9, 2009

Friedman's Fayyad Folly

If I was a superhero New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman would be my arch nemesis. He would mischievously zoom around a fictitious brown and grey, run-down city spreading vague generalizations, misinformation, overly simplistic explanations for complex phenomena, and wandering metaphors among the unsuspecting, innocent populace. His nefarious goal: to convince every last one of our metaphorical city’s inhabitants that he is a brilliant expert on all internationally concerned things – global warming, Middle East politics, globalization – you name it, Tom Friedman wants to be everybody’s go-to guy for it. Our hero (yours truly, of course) would swoop in and start an epic battle of words with Friedman, attempting to convince the public that his op-ed articles are nothing but shallow generalizations and ideas spawned from our villain’s Bushian habit of thinking with his gut while on assignment in exotic locales. This would be a tragedy rather than a comedy of course. The hero would talk and talk and no one would listen. Friedman would be offered a prominent position at the New York Times and I would wade in obscurity on a little-known blog – doomed to live as an internet hermit in a virtual cave overlooking the once proud city.

If you have made it this far, congratulations, because what I have attempted to produce is a Friedmanian wandering metaphor. I am proud of its accuracy in portraying his style.

Metaphors aside, Thomas Friedman’s most recent crime against the American intellect was a two-part declaration of his unending love and respect for appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. In the first part of his op-ed, entitled “Green Shoots in Palestine,” Friedman praises the efforts of Fayyad to build strong democratic state institutions characterized by transparency, accountability, respect for the rule of law, and independent judiciary, and checks on executive power. He coins the term “Fayyadism,” which, “is based on the simple but all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or rejectionism or personality cults or security services, but on delivering transparent, accountable administration and services.” He also asserts that Fayyadism calls for the building of state institutions before securing Palestinian independence. Friedman calls this concept, “the most exciting new idea in Arab governance ever.”

There are many problems I (and Marc Lynch) have with Friedman’s article, but first I want to clarify who Salam Fayyad is to allow me to explain everything he is not in refutation of Friedman’s assertions. Salam Fayyad is an American-educated, Western-supported, highly-respected economist who held several positions at the International Monetary Fund before jumping into Palestinian politics. His name has generally been held in Western circles as synonymous with efforts to end corruption and reform the political institutions of the PA. He served as Finance Minister from June 2002 until November 2006, was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council as a member of his Third Way party (which he helped co-found with Hanan Ashrawi and Yasser Abd Rabbo). Third Way won just 2.4% of the nearly one million votes cast, clearing the minimum threshold by only 4000 votes and eking out two of the 132 seats in the legislature. After winning election, Fayyad served as Finance Minister in the Hamas-Fateh unity government until Hamas seized control over the Gaza Strip and President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Hamas ministers from the government. Abbas then tapped Fayyad as Prime Minister in violation of Palestinian law, justifying the appointment due to “national emergency.”

My problem is not with Salam Fayyad, but with Friedman’s reading of what is going on in Palestinian politics. I do not doubt Fayyad’s intentions to curb corruption and build strong democratic institutions in the Palestinian Authority. He represents a fresh face in Palestinian politics and seems to be a very promising politician, one that could potentially encourage the development of democratic principles in Palestine. His Third Way party ran on a platform of ending corruption and fighting for democracy, and I believe it (along with Mustafa Barghouti’s Al-Mubadara) represents the very best that the Palestinian political system has produced. The problem is that Friedman misreads Fayyad’s autonomy in the caretaker government and his support among the Palestinian population. Salam Fayyad is just not the prominent, charismatic politician ready to crush corruption and authoritarianism in the PA that Friedman lets on.

His “Fayyadism” is a laughably ill-conceived concept that is poorly named and even more poorly defined. Friedman’s assertion that providing civil services and transparent administration in exchange for votes and support is a radically new concept in the Arab world, or that Salam Fayyad represents the leading edge of such a movement is demonstrably false given recent Middle East history. Two groups are revered and respected in much of the region for their development of social services in low-income areas and corruption-free administrations: Hamas and Hezbollah. Both organizations (which employ violent militant wings as well) beat Fayyad to the punch and were the first to push back against the unaccountable, authoritarian secular nationalist regimes in Palestine and Lebanon. If anything, “Fayyadism” should be more appropriately named, “Social Islamism.” Hamas won the 2006 PLC elections on a platform of ending the rampant corruption of Abbas’ Fateh party and by demonstrating that they could provide needed, accountable social services to the population. Hezbollah’s popularity (which has translated into electoral success in Lebanon) is largely based on their provision of social services such as hospitals and educational programs that the Lebanese government has continually failed to provide. The UN believes that Hezbollah provides hundreds of millions of dollars of social programs every year. Admitting that this concept actually originated with groups most of the Western world consider terrorist organizations is understandably inconvenient for Friedman, so he apparently just names it after a Western-backed Arab politician, historical facts be damned.

Aside from the inconvenient truth that “Fayyadism” actually originated with local Islamist groups, Friedman ignores that his hero Fayyad has accomplished very little democratic political development during his time in Palestinian politics (and has pursued or acquiesced to some very undemocratic policies). A few weeks ago I commented on the reporting ban placed on Al-Jazeera by the PA for reporting negative comments about late Fateh leader Yasser Arafat by a prominent Fateh official. Fayyad was largely implicated as the driving force behind the ban, ordering the Attorney General to pursue charges against the popular news network. Under pressure, Fayyad relented, but it’s hard to imagine how muzzling the press is good for democracy. More recently, Fayyad said nothing about the undemocratic reelection of Abbas as head of Fateh. The entire spectacle brought back all too many bad memories of Arafat’s authoritarian, unaccountable rule over Palestine. Abbas ran unopposed and 700 unknown Fateh delegates were bussed into the conference just before the vote to insure that Abbas received enough votes – moves ripped right out of Arafat’s playbook.

Fayyad is just not the prominent, popular politician that Friedman insists he is. As I stated earlier, he barely won his seat in the PLC – despite running on centrist platform to crush corruption and institute greater democratic policies. The other relatively unknown independent party Al-Mubadara even won more votes than Third Way, mainly because it was doing exactly what Hamas and Hezbollah do: providing medical and social services where the PA had failed. The most recent PCPSR survey (which I have cited in several prior posts) sheds some light on Fayyad’s support among Palestinians. A solid 48% oppose the Fayyad caretaker government as opposed to 42% who support it. An abysmal 32% regard the performance of his government as good or very good. Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas-led de facto regime in the Gaza Strip beat Fayyad, with 41% rating it as good or very good. Here is perhaps the most telling statistic that refutes Friedman’s claim that Fayyad is actually fighting corruption: 70% of Palestinians believe corruption continues in PA institutions, with only 27% believing it will decrease. The fact is, Fayyad has just not been able (or willing) to combat corruption and institute democratic principles. Only 42% rank the status of democracy and human rights in the PA as good or very good. Finally, only 26% view the Abbas/Fayyad government as legitimate, 4% less than those who see Hamas as the legitimate regime.

Though Friedman does not let this on, I worry that Fayyad is being used as window dressing on Abbas’ presidency to give his government and his policies greater legitimacy, to curry favor with the West, and to give the appearance that corruption is being curbed. Salam Fayyad has precious little autonomy within the caretaker government and is rarely allowed to pursue his own policies.

Friedman seems to think that the trend toward accountable government in Palestine (which I believe is nothing more than a figment of his imagination, accountability has plummeted in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the violent fall of the unity government) will spill over into neighboring Arab regimes, causing a domino effect of blossoming democratic principles. Please do not hold your breath that the monarchies in the Gulf and Jordan or the secular dictatorial regimes in Egypt or Syria will reform because of Palestinian examples. There’s no such thing as the Iraq domino effect, and Palestine certainly won’t be the catalyst for democratic political development either – especially given the undemocratic nature of Palestinian politics right now.

I cannot say in stronger words how wrong Friedman is about Palestinian political development. Democratic principles have been severely and continuously repressed by both Hamas and the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007. Fayyad’s stint as Prime Minister has done nothing to end corruption or provide accountable government. Abbas continues to hunt down, imprison, and torture Hamas affiliates, regardless of if they have committed any actual crimes. The “national emergency” has simply provided the justification for both regimes to stifle dissent, make arbitrary arrests, and consolidate the power of the state in the hands of a few leaders. Palestine is not becoming more democratic as Friedman would have his readers believe, but less and Fayyad has been unable to do very little to reverse this trend.

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