Mahmoud Abbas’ most likely successor raises questions of legitimacy
The nepotistic rise of Hussein al-Sheikh, the PA’s key liaison to Israel, is emblematic of all that is wrong with the Palestinian leadership.
After a year in power, Israel’s “government of change” has announced its intention to disband, signaling preparations for a fifth election in the past three years. Coincidentally, the Palestinian government itself undertook significant change without bringing Palestinians to the polls. This causes a main dilemma: who would succeed Mahmoud Abbas as head of the main institutions of the Palestinian national movement, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
At 86, and with a smoking habit and lifelong heart problems and beaten prostate cancer, the expectation that Abbas won’t be long for this world is prudent. Three years ago, Abbas had a serious ear infection which was complicated by pneumonia.
Rumors of Abbas’ impending demise swirled again after BBC Arabic tweeted that some of his responsibilities had been handed over to his right-hand man, Hussein al-Sheikh, a controversial figure who rose from relative obscurity to the inner sanctum of decision-making at the behest of Abbas.
Hussein al-Sheikh was born in 1960 in Ramallah, he has been a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee (EC) since February 2022. In May 2022, PLO President Mahmoud Abbas appointed him Secretary General of the THIS. Previously, Al-Sheikh was elected to Fatah’s Central Committee in August 2009.
He is one of the main contacts with the Israeli authorities regarding civil affairs in the West Bank.
In his past, Al-Sheikh served as the coordinating minister for civil affairs between 2013 and 2019. Although he is no longer a member of the Palestinian government, al-Sheikh has retained his rank as a minister.
After the 2014 Gaza war, al-Sheikh was appointed as the PA’s representative on the Gaza Reconstruction Trilateral Committee alongside Israeli and Egyptian representatives. In this capacity, he is the main interlocutor of the Palestinian government for the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM).
According to his own biography, Al-Sheikh was detained by Israeli forces for 11 years, from 1978 to 1989. While imprisoned in Israel, he learned Hebrew. Then he became a member of the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU) during the first Intifada. After the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the PA, he served briefly in preventive security with the rank of colonel, before becoming secretary general of Fatah in the West Bank in 1999.
Therefore, over the past six months Abbas forced significant changes to the ossified PLO leadership that clarified the situation as to who could step into the leadership vacuum once he left. So there’s a chance that talk of his “succession” won’t die down as quickly as they once did.
In January, at Abbas’ request, the Fatah Party’s Central Committee ‘unanimously nominated’ al-Sheikh as its candidate for a vacant seat on the PLO’s Executive Committee, the body’s top body. responsible for day-to-day decision-making, although he was never a prominent leader in Fatah or the PLO. The appointment was confirmed within weeks by the PLO’s Central Council, a body Abbas has spent years stacking with loyalists.
In May, Abbas still had promoted his protege as general secretary of the Executive Committee, bypassing other longtime members to become the man who would lead the PLO if Abbas left the post. Al-Sheikh has also taken on all sorts of extraordinary duties, such as the main contact with foreign diplomats, including from the United States and Europe, and joining Abbas on all trips abroad. Nothing important happens without the presence of al-Sheikh.
While this kind of clarity may allay some fears of a messy leadership vacuum in the future, the mere debate over ‘succession’ and al-Sheikh’s nepotistic rise are emblematic of all that has gone wrong with the domestic Palestinian politics under the Abbas regime. and its legacy of undemocratic rule.
Abbas – whose first term as PA president was due to expire in 2009 – undermined the institutions he leads in order to monopolize power for himself and his closest advisers. After Hamas won a majority in parliament after the 2006 elections, Abbas’s attempts to overturn the result led to a brief civil war and the ejection of Fatah from Gaza.
Since the Fatah-Hamas split, Abbas has repeatedly failed to reconcile the divide and thwarted all attempts to hold new elections, including most recently in April 2021. At the same time, he used his dual authority as head of the PA and the PLO to undermine the independence of the judiciary, dissolve the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and illegally strip it of its powers, as well as from those of the PLO parliament. Today, Abbas relies on executive decrees without any judicial or legislative constraint.
As a result, the institutional processes for a smooth transition of power are no longer viable. So, despite Abbas’s sudden efforts to find a successor, a constitutional crisis still looms over his inevitable departure that could lead to fierce political struggles for control.
Since 2007, al-Sheikh has headed the PA’s General Authority for Civil Affairs, which liaises with COGAT, the civilian arm of Israel’s military government in Palestinian autonomy.
Although the post does not have the cachet of prime minister or foreign minister, it has arguably become the most important government post after the presidency. Devoid of any true self-sovereignty, the PA – and the Palestinian public – ultimately rely on the Israeli military regime to function in all aspects of daily life. The man who oversees the procedures for granting permits, visas, licenses and other necessities from Israel to the PA is therefore endowed with enormous power and influence.
Al-Sheikh himself has signaled that he has little intention of changing the PA’s relationship with the Israeli regime. He said the next Palestinian leader should come to power through the ballot box, but only if Israel allows Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem to vote. The same warning was used by Abbas as a pretext to cancel the elections scheduled for May 2021.
Al-Sheikh is matched by Majid al-Faraj, also close to Abbas and Israel, who heads one of the PA’s most powerful security agencies, the General Intelligence Service. Together with the president, they formed a kind of triumvirate.
During this process, the PA lost its original mandate, defined by the Oslo accords, as a proto-state entity in the process of becoming a sovereign government.
As such, Palestinian political institutions have been largely reduced to the above two spheres – which are, not coincidentally, of the utmost importance to Israel and, therefore, to the PA’s Western backers. afloat regardless of the absent peace process.. If al-Sheikh and al-Faraj retain leadership, it will herald the continuation of the status quo.
Despite these maneuvers, the outcome premeditated by Abbas is far from certain. Al-Sheikh and al-Faraj have very little support beyond their patronage networks; a recent poll shows nearly 75% of Palestinians want Abbas to quit, and he likely retains more public support than they do.
This is also true among the various political parties, including within Fatah itself, where other prominent figures are unhappy with the way they have been sidelined by the president.
Article 37 of Palestinian law Basic Law stipulates that if the presidency is released, the speaker of parliament will become acting president for 60 days until an election can be held. Although Abbas dissolved the PLC in 2018, Hamas will almost certainly insist that its candidate be the legitimate interim president.
Hamas’ popularity seems to be surging among young Palestinians in the West Bank.
Beyond the PA, the question arises about the leadership of the PLO.
Although al-Sheikh now holds the post of general secretary, his appointment has been controversial even within the ranks of the party.
As a result, there are now serious questions about the legitimacy of the PLO as the “sole representative” of the Palestinian people on the international scene.
Transferring the leadership of the PLO to someone like al-Sheikh risks dealing another blow to the organization and further atomizing the national liberation movement.
What remains clear is that Abbas is the last of his generation, a political figure whose legitimacy is intimately linked to the founding fathers of Fatah and the PLO, as well as to the driving forces of the peace process in Oslo. With his advisers seriously compromised by their close affiliation with Israel, their credibility with most Palestinians is close to zero. And without a formal plan to determine the fate of Palestinian politics, the door will be open to all sorts of uncharted possibilities, including infighting between those who aspire to succeed him.