Analysis |

Mahmoud Abbas' Cult of Personality Is Out of Control – and Sparking Protest

Two performances this month highlighted the disconnect between the Palestinian public and the leadership of Abbas’ Fatah party, which continues to blindly glorify him

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas attends the funeral of former senior Fatah official Ahmed Abdel Rahman in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 4, 2019.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas attends the funeral of former senior Fatah official Ahmed Abdel Rahman in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 4, 2019. Credit: ABBAS MOMANI / AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The angel of peace is hovering over Ramallah, while in Nablus, the goddess Ishtar is silenced. Two artistic performances this month have riled the Palestinian public: A hymn of praise and adoration for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and a solo dance performance, imaginative and unorthodox, that concluded a week of activities at An-Najah University to combat violence against women.

Amid the social media storm, a terminal disconnect again emerges between Abbas' Fatah party and the Palestinian public. At the same time, the controversies themselves show the extent to which the public is more diverse, open to change and critical than the leadership thinks it is.

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At the beginning of December, official Palestinian television took the surprise step of broadcasting what it called the “Angel of Peace" operetta, a performance featuring many musicians, many singers and many extras.  At least going by the uniforms they were wearing, some were members of the Palestinian security forces. 

All of this fanfare took place at an amphitheater in the heart of Ramallah, and was spread between the stage and the audience's seats. A large screen bearing the face of Abu Mazen left no doubt to whom this angel of peace may be, the guardian of the dream, the creator of tomorrow’s dawn.

Credit for the embarrassing song lyrics went to the spokesman of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, Khaled Sukkar, and Bashar Tameizi, a poet in his late 30s whose poetry, in rich colloquial Arabic, usually tugs at the heartstrings. The credit for the music went to Khaled Sadouq, an oud player, composer and lecturer on music at An-Najah University, who also oversees the music broadcasts on Palestinian television.

The ridicule that promptly flooded social media over the performance (including stinging caricatures, one of which shows the “angel of peace” next to a mound of skulls in Gaza) was not aimed at the writers and performers of this ode, but rather at the object of adoration and its bard – the official Palestinian broadcasting authority itself.

“Behind you, encouraged, the people march toward the expanse/ it’s our privilege to be proud of you/ we hail you, oh my master… in one hand a branch of peace and in the other –  lead bullets/ the dust of those walking on the side will clear as the dawn of salvation arises….”  This hymn of praise and flattery continues in this vein, filled with empty words devoid of any connection to the reality of army raids, daily arrests and the ongoing Israeli takeover of more and more Palestinian land.

To those who heard the performance, the repeated use of the phrase "my master" (“saeedi” in Arabic) was particularly grating. That’s how the king of Jordan is addressed, one critic noted.

They also mentioned former Fatah Spokesman Ahmed Assaf, who has risen through the ranks thanks to President Abbas. As part of the drive to concentrate the president's authority and appoint loyalists to positions of power, Abbas made Assaf the press (or propaganda) minister, who is responsible for all of the PA’s official media outlets: radio, television and the Wafa news agency.

Sukkar, one of the performance's writers, was quoted as telling a television reporter that Assaf spared no expense in producing and broadcasting the performance. Sukkar meant it as a compliment, but the public concluded the opposite. Many critics honed in on the financial aspects of the production.

There are daily reports of more and more people who are dropped from the rolls of the Palestinian Authority’s welfare benefits – the sick, the poor, released prisoners. Even without knowing how much money was spent on the 10-minute-long televised spectacle  and its many rehearsals, astonished viewers had the sense that the sum was taken directly from their own pockets and at their expense.

A petition that was published a few days after the broadcast expressed regret over the exploitation of the young musicians and singers who were enlisted for this display of adulation. The petition demanded a halt to the dissemination of the video of the performance (and according to one newspaper report, YouTube removed it from its site at the behest of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, who discovered its many "dislikes").

The petition also mentioned a booklet published in May entitled “Our Shining Example – Our President” as well as a Facebook page that was created in support of Abbas. The booklet was pulled after it was met with fierce criticism.

In ongoing opinion polling, the proportion of those demanding Abbas’ resignation continues to hover above 60 percent, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. It turns out that the flattery of Abbas is not helping his popularity, but the Fatah elite are not learning from experience and blindly continue to glorify the unloved leader. The only rational explanation for this is that his sycophants are thinking only about themselves, their current status and their salaries.

The petition’s drafters noted that the cult of the individual is contrary to the Palestinian liberation movement, which is based on values of partnership and equality, volunteerism, justice, a critical spirit and sacrifice for the general good.

The Palestinian people, the petition continues, are repulsed by the inane attempts to channel Palestinian nationalism into ceremonies, the entire intent of which is to elevate a one-man rule or dictatorship, “of the type we often see in our region and in other places around the world.” The petition includes a list of notable Palestinians who would have been disgusted by this performance and the phenomenon it represents. There is not a single woman, though, among them.  

Turning off the light

Palestinian women, however, find ways of their own to remind society – and its intellectuals, too – of their existence. On December 10, An-Najah University presented a solo performance by Jerusalem-born dancer Ashtar Muallem, in which she blended modern dance and aerial exercises, performed on a hanging silk sheet. The performance was called Enheduanna, after the first known poet in history, the daughter of the Akkadian King Sargon from the 23rd century B.C. In her performance, Muallem said, she wanted to touch upon the state of women in the Arab world, showing their inner strength and ability to bring about change.

A young female lecturer at the university said that the audience liked the performance, but that fifteen minutes after it started the lights went off, deliberately. After a short negotiation, Muallem was allowed to finish the piece she was performing and then the light went off again.  The head of the faculty of fine arts, Ghawi Michel Ghawi, walked onto the stage to announce that the show was over. He later explained that her performance clashed with the traditions and customs of society, referring to the fact that Muallem shed a few articles of clothing during her dance.

Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the senior pollster in the Palestinian enclaves, said that young people, the largest age group in Palestinian society, are more liberal and less religious. Thus, for instance, support for Hamas is low among them, while they are also the most vocal supporters of armed struggle. With this in mind, those who instigated the interruption of the performance at An-Najah also demonstrated how disconnected they are from reality.

The backlash to this interruption was quick to surface, and critics did not forget to mention that political officials regularly block artistic activity in Gaza and the West Bank. Scattered scraps of information hinted that a representative of the university's security connected to the Palestinian Authority’s security apparatus, was seated in the auditorium. It is said that he was the one who ordered a stop to the performance (which, Muallem says, had received advance permission from the university to hold it).

The security apparatus on An-Najah campus wields enormous power, complain students and lecturers alike. It’s an open secret that campus security is associated with Fatah, or at least with some of its figures. And yet, last Tuesday the university issued an apology for cutting the performance short. Muallem said that a true apology would mean allowing her back to stage her entire performance at the university.

The revulsion felt towards the cult of Abbas as well as towards the increasing power of security agencies in society, which operate as Fatah-controlled estates, has political consequences. At least according to official declarations, Fatah, Abbas and his loyal followers are planning to hold general elections. According to the latest survey from Shikaki's center, taken last week, more people say they will vote for Fatah than Hamas (40 vs. 32 percent).

But this answer does not take the inevitable fissures in Fatah into account. Several key Fatah figures intend to run independently, largely due to the authoritarian reputation the organization gained. Supporters of Mohammed Dahlan, a long-time Abbas rival, are also likely to run on their own list. This means that Fatah will run as three different factions, at least.   It’s likely that the amoeba-like tendency of this veteran liberation movement will again make it lose to the younger Islamist resistance movement, as was the case in in 2006.

Some observers believe that when Abbas first raised the possibility of holding an election, he was hoping that Hamas would refuse. Yahya Sinwar did not fall into that trap and agreed to all the conditions that were posed to him. Abbas has now been dawdling for weeks over giving the executive order to determine the date and arrangements for the election, on the pretext that Israel must first agree to hold elections in East Jerusalem.

This delay may be a sign that Abbas and his associates are not as disconnected from the situation on the ground as they seem. They know how unpopular they are. They are incapable of allowing true reform in their movement, one which will bring to the fore new and young forces to replace them. They are now looking for a convenient way to renege on the election.

In any case, according to Shikaki's poll, most people doubt that the two rival movements will hold to the results of an election if they do not go their way, estimating that both would prevent the establishment of a single government in Gaza and the West Bank which is not under their control. Fifty-nine percent of people surveyed believe this of Hamas, and 68 percent believe this is what Fatah will do.

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