Best birthday wishes to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, who turned 81 last week. The octogenarian appears ready to remain at the helm until his last day -- free elections for Palestinians be damned.
Abbas has inherited a tradition of tyranny. His predecessor, Yasser Arafat, was also president for life. Both have plenty of company, joining a long list of African presidents who earned the notorious title of "President for Life" - in Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad, Eritrea and Gambia. And let us not forget the Arab dictators in these ranks.
One might hope for at least a deputy -- someone to fill the impending and inevitable power vacuum in the PA. Not likely.
Abbas has fiercely resisted demands from leaders of his ruling Fatah faction to name a deputy president or a successor. His reasoning: the time is not "appropriate" for such a move. Palestinians should instead concentrate their energies on rallying international support for a Palestinian state.
The PA president acquired his "private fiefdom," as it is called by his detractors, in a January 2005 election, when Abbas was given a four-year mandate.
Such mandate seems to have been rewritten by the standing president. January 2016 marked the beginning of the eleventh year of Abbas's four-year term in office. But it is business as usual in Ramallah.
We hear on a monthly basis that Abbas is keen on having Palestinians cast their ballots in a free and democratic vote. Yet we have seen no evidence to this effect. That make sense: Hamas could easily best Abbas in such an election. Despite his advancing age, Abbas still has clear memories of January 2006, when Hamas was permitted to run in the parliamentary election and won.
Abbas is also acutely aware that Hamas, which holds hostage nearly two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, would never allow a free vote there -- especially for Abbas loyalists who have been seeking to undermine its rule.
Just a few days ago, a Hamas "military" court in the Gaza Strip sentenced two senior Palestinian Authority security officers, Sami Nisman and Naim Abu Ful, to 15 and 12 years in prison respectively, on charges of spying for the Palestinian Authority and plotting terror attacks against Hamas targets.
The verdicts are yet another sign that Hamas and Abbas's Fatah are still far from achieving any form of reconciliation. This, despite all the talk about "progress" that has been reportedly achieved in talks between the two parties. Unconfirmed reports earlier this week leaked details of sticking points between Hamas and Fatah negotiators, have been meeting in Doha, Qatar, under the auspices of the Gulf state, towards forming a new unity government and holding new presidential and parliamentary elections. Qatar is the largest source of funds for the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot, Hamas.
Abbas's fear of holding elections in the Gaza Strip is not without justification. In addition to the crackdown on his loyalists and security officers there, Hamas is also cracking down on journalists, academics, unionists and even lawyers.
Last week, Hamas security forces raided the offices of the Palestinian Bar Association in Gaza City and confiscated computers. The raid came as a result of the controversy surrounding the Bar Association not submitting lawyers' financial and administrative records, in addition to complaints filed by some lawyers against the Bar Association, according to a statement released by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). The raid, some Palestinians claim, is in the context of Hamas's effort to crack down on lawyers who are affiliated with the rival Fatah faction.
Yet Abbas's West Bank rivals Hamas in Gaza, in terms of a lack of human rights and freedom of speech. The president's security forces are in the midst of a massive and ongoing crackdown on political opponents of all stripes, making the idea of free and democratic elections there a joke. Abbas cannot tolerate the idea of having a deputy: how would he consider the establishment of a new party or the emergence of a potential candidate for the presidency.
Senior figures who have dared to challenge Abbas's autocratic rule have already found themselves targeted by the president and his men. Ask former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who had his organization's bank accounts seized by Abbas, or Mohamed Dahlan, the former Fatah commander and minister who was forced to flee the Palestinian territories after falling out with Abbas and his sons. Perhaps deposed PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo, who overnight was stripped of his powers and thrown to the dogs for speaking out against the president, would have a word to say. In Ramallah, they call them the "Abbas victims."
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left), who turned 81 last week, has fiercely resisted demands from leaders of his ruling Fatah faction to name a deputy president or a successor. Senior figures who have dared to challenge Abbas's autocratic rule have been targeted by the president -- such as Mohamed Dahlan (right), the former Fatah commander and minister who was forced to flee the Palestinian territories after falling out with Abbas and his sons. (Image sources: U.S. State Dept., M. Dahlan Office)
We would need a crystal ball to know what will happen the day after Abbas disappears from the scene. Perhaps, say some, we shall witness a scene reminiscent of the old days of the Soviet Union "Politburo," with the next president chosen by a group of Fatah and PLO leaders who will meet in Ramallah. This seems the most likely scenario, in the absence of any chance of free and democratic elections, and in light of the continued split between the two Palestinian entities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
We do not need a crystal ball, however, to know that Abbas will leave a legacy of chaos. His adamant refusal to name a deputy or even discuss the issue of succession in public has already created tensions among the top brass of the PLO and Fatah. The Palestinian public, for its part, has precious little confidence in its leaders.
The behind-the-scenes power struggle that has been quietly raging in Ramallah for the past few months is likely to lead to a state of paralysis in the Palestinian arena and leave the Palestinians without an acceptable leader. Or, as senior Fatah official Tawfik Tirawi put it, Abbas will be the last president for the Palestinians.
Palestinians are plagued with leaders who desire one thing: personal power. The Palestinians are marching away from achieving a state, partly because they seem incapable of the fundamental political principle of free and democratic elections. The day after does not look promising.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.