Legitimacy Contested

Governments throughout the Middle East are torn apart by factions, categorized as “moderate” or “extremist,” notably in Palestine and Lebanon. Popular public opinion, weary of corruption, poverty and external influences, tends to support parties described as “extremist,” while governments – including the US, Egypt, Jordan and Israel – tend to support traditional parties labeled as “moderate.” Part of the rationale for the US invasion of Iraq was to encourage democracy throughout the Middle East. But so far, the US and other international observers have been unhappy over choices made by those in the Middle East who have access to free elections. International diplomats continue to depend on isolation, threats to withhold aid and demands for a change in attitude to overcome extremist groups. Loud declarations of “legitimacy” by outside forces, however powerful, may have the opposite effect. Widespread resentment and humiliation about external interference in political, social and economic spheres in both Palestine and Lebanon leads to increasing disillusionment among voters about the ability of any government to serve the public interest. – YaleGlobal

Legitimacy Contested

Differing claims to "legitimacy" are asserted in Palestine and Lebanon, reports Dina Ezzat, in the unspoken war between "moderation" and "radicalism"
Dina Ezzat
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa arrived in Lebanon Tuesday for a round of desperate mediation talks between the two main currently conflicting Lebanese camps: the parliamentary majority camp, headed by Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora and supported by the West and pro- Western Arab allies, and the opposition camp, headed by Hizbullah, that enjoys the sympathies of public opinion in many parts of the Arab world and the support of governments that oppose growing Western influence in the region, including Iran and Syria.

When Moussa landed in Beirut, the political crisis worsened. The opposition, which is in alliance with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, is considering the composition of a "second" government that opposition figures say would represent all points of views -- not solely those of the Al-Siniora government, from which they have withdrawn.

For Lebanon, a state with two governments is not a stretch of the imagination; it has happened before. In fact, for the Arab world, states of two governments appear increasingly the norm.

In Palestine, at present there are two governments: one formed on the basis of free elections and presided over by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh; and one last week created by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and presided over by Western-backed former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.

In talks Tuesday, Moussa focussed on the curious mission of reconciling the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of Al-Siniora with the popular legitimacy of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah. He has a harder task still in reconciling the situation in Palestine. Fatah turned down a proposal by Moussa to arrange for a meeting between Abbas and the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, and now officially Fatah rejects talks with Hamas altogether.

Meanwhile, Israel, surely overjoyed with the now de facto partition not only of the occupied Palestinian territories, but seemingly the entire Palestinian national liberation project, this week was swift to move, along with the EU, some Arab capitals, and the US, to promise its support to the Fatah side of the Palestinian divide. For its part, Cairo officially declared plans to move its diplomatic presence from Gaza, now exclusively controlled by Hamas, to Ramallah, the traditional base for Abbas and senior Fatah leaders.

So who is at the helm? According to Hesham Youssef, chief of the cabinet of the Arab League secretary- general, the issue is not conflicting claims to legitimacy, but rather "differences among national powers". For Youssef, there can only be "one legitimacy"; prompt diplomatic mediation is necessary to reconcile differing national agendas.

But has this not failed before? And with two governments declared, will the dissolution of one be deemed possible? Who has more legitimacy? President Abbas, democratically elected, or Hamas, also democratically elected? And in Lebanon, which of the two camps should prevail? The isolated, though Western-backed, government of Al-Siniora, or the popularly supported movement of Nasrallah?

During the deliberations of Arab foreign ministers Friday, this conundrum was not overlooked. The division of views that emerged was expected: Syria and Qatar, who both keep close contacts with, and lent much support to, Hamas and Hizbullah, argued the need for a "legitimacy sharing" arrangement, through the establishment of national unity governments in both Palestine and Lebanon.

While endorsed by others for Lebanon, this approach was rejected for Palestine. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia stated prior to the meeting's beginning a call for respecting the legitimacy of President Abbas. The resolution adopted on developments in Palestine underlined the decision of Arab countries to "respect national Palestinian legitimacy under the presidency of President Mahmoud Abbas". A very shy acknowledgement was offered to the Hamas-dominated but largely non-functional Palestinian Legislative Council.

So today, for most Arab capitals, including Cairo, Ismail Haniyeh is no longer the Palestinian prime minister to address. Indeed, Egypt was quick in welcoming Fayyad as prime minister of the emergency government established by Abbas. Similar welcoming statements were issued in other Arab capitals.

But will bolstering the "legitimacy of Abbas" in public statements change the situation on the ground of the existence of two governments? Arab officials do not offer an answer to this question, or to what will happen next after largely failed mediation in Lebanon.

For Egypt, the support it has been lending to Abbas, ostensibly the reason for the exit of its security delegation and diplomatic mission in Gaza, reflects Cairo's perception of "the illegitimacy of the current situation" in the Strip. Cairo maintains that it cannot provide a security delegation, or diplomatic relations, to what it perceives as a power "installed through a coup d'état".

On the other hand, Egypt, and other Arab "moderates", say they will not let Palestinians in Gaza starve; nor support any permanent separation between Gaza and the West Bank. Even they say they are willing to "re-accommodate" Hamas, once it shifts attitudes. There is no going back, however, to the national unity government. The Fayyad "technocrat government" will remain in place.

"We are not at war with Hamas. We are talking to them and we are still trying to initiate dialogue between the [Palestinian] factions during the coming month. We just do not agree with what Hamas did, and we are making this clear," said one Egyptian diplomat.

In the same breath, Egypt and Arab allies say they will continue to support the government of Al-Siniora in Lebanon. Though they don't say it directly, this amounts to shrugging off Hizbullah.

For Arab diplomats the rationale is clear: supporting "legitimate" government means eschewing militant Islamic groups. "Moderation" is the watchword, not "extremism". This, they argue, is the only way to avoid civil wars. Compromise on the part of "radicals" will follow from isolating them.

What is in doubt is whether the public of the Arab nation agrees.

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