Palestinians watched anxiously as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has helped broker Middle East peace talks for the past 20 years, said yesterday he won’t run for another term.
Neither the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, nor its president, Mahmoud Abbas, has said anything official about the weeklong protests that challenged Mubarak’s rule, calling the situation too volatile. The militant Islamic Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, also has chosen to remain silent about the political events in Egypt.
“What worries us is the instability and lack of public order,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, emphasizing that she wasn’t speaking officially.
“We prefer to wait until we see the situation is getting stable,” said Hamas spokesman Ahmed Yousef.
Mubarak, 82, said in a statement on state television that his 30-year rule will end with presidential elections due in September. He said he hadn’t intended to run for another term and will stay on until the balloting to ensure “stability,” adding that laws on the eligibility of candidates and presidential term limits will be revised before the vote.
Egypt ruled Gaza before Israel captured the narrow seaside enclave in the 1967 Middle East war. Mubarak and his aides have played a role in peace negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and in talks between the authority and Hamas to resolve the schism created when the Islamic movement seized control of Gaza in 2007.
Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union and Israel, was founded in 1987 as an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition faction, is legally banned from politics.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Jan. 31 that any political changes in Egypt might be exploited by “an organized Islamist entity” that could take over the country. He likened the situation to Iran’s 1979 revolution, when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a U.S. ally, was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who declared America the “Great Satan.”
Such concerns account for the reluctance of Hamas officials to discuss the calls in Egypt for Mubarak’s removal, said Hani Habib, a political scientist at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza City.
“If the Muslim Brotherhood becomes part of the government and takes control of Egypt, this would of course topple the Egyptian effort of reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas,” Habib said in a telephone interview. “If that happens, it will be an easy excuse for Israel to reoccupy the border strip between Gaza and Egypt, and the Palestinian situation would only get worse.”
While Abbas’s Cabinet met in Ramallah yesterday, it didn’t mention any discussion of the Egyptian crisis in a statement released afterward. The statement focused on scheduling municipal elections.
Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said he was told not to speak publicly about the situation in Egypt.
“We as Palestinians have a great affinity for the Egyptians, and some people are afraid that they’ll eventually be subjected to an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to take over, but I don’t see any sign that they have the strength to do that,” said Nabil Shaath, a member of the Palestinian team negotiating with Israel.
Change in Leadership
Shaath declined to discuss how a change in Egypt’s leadership might affect the talks, saying Abbas “feels in particular that we should not be seen to be supporting one side or the other.”
Anti-government demonstrations in neighboring Jordan, where the population is mostly Palestinian, led Prime Minister Samir Rifai to resign yesterday. King Abdullah asked Marouf Bakhit, a former prime minister, to form a new government. The move followed Mubarak’s reshuffling of his own Cabinet in response to the protests.
One of the only public Palestinian demonstrations occurred Jan. 31 in Gaza, where Hamas police officers dispersed a few dozen residents who gathered at a park to show support for the Egyptian protests. Organizers said the demonstrators were recruited through Facebook.
Both Israel and Egypt shut their borders to Gaza after the Hamas takeover, leading to a proliferation of smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border. In the face of international pressure, Israel eased restrictions on importing supplies into Gaza last June, and Egypt reopened its Rafah border terminal with Gaza for limited operations.
On a rainy afternoon in Gaza yesterday, people gathered in cafes and electronic stores to watch the marchers in Egypt on television.
“Egypt has been always been our gate to the outside world,” said Ahmas al-Shawa, an unemployed 24-year-old man. “We don’t want to be cut off again.”
Husam Jabber, a 35-year-old taxi driver, disagreed.
“It is the right of all nations to change their leaders and seek a better life,” he said.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com