By Oset Babur and Ashley Dennee
The first week of June 2014 marks an important time for the Middle East’s unpredictable relationship with democracy. Both Palestine and Syria held national elections, and while their outcomes may not be unexpected, their implications are certainly worth a closer look.
On Monday, Palestine welcomed its first national unity government since 2007 with conditional support from the United States and the European Union, much to the chagrin of Israel. In fact, Israel has made allegations that the new Palestinian government is tied to Hamas, and the Israeli government granted Prime Minister Netanyahu permission to impose financial sanctions mere hours after the public swearing-in. The members of this new unity government are politically unaffiliated, and will respond to potential conflicts using diplomatic and legal tools only.
Unity for Palestine Does Not Bring Peace of Mind for All
The new unity government is borne out of a mutual understanding that the agreement has benefits for both major Palestinian parties. Mahmoud Abbas has emphasized that he will continue to be the chief liaison for Western donors, although the true implications of Western aid in Palestine remain heavily contested. Ultimately, the unity pact is a way to strengthen Palestine internally, while keeping it strong externally: a win-win that the region has not enjoyed in a while.
Historically, the United States has supported Israel to protect American interests in the tumultuous Middle East. These changes in American and European attitude towards the new Palestinian government could likely be inspired by the implications of the new Palestinian government, whose foundations lie in an agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on other nations to withhold formal recognition of the new Palestinian government, suggesting that the United States could find itself caught in a lawsuit for providing aid to a terrorist organization. In response to the less-than-welcome reception from the Israeli government, President Abbas remarked, “Israel wants to punish us for cooperating with Hamas.” For Hamas, however, the cooperation brings much-needed financial relief; since the closing of the crucial Rafah crossing into Gaza, citizens there have been faced with harsh conditions. Hamas has provided support to those who have been victimized by the closing, and the new unity government has agreed to relieve Hamas of its duties.
In Syria, No Change in Wartime
Today, Syria will see Bashar al-Assad maintain his role as president for his third seven-year term.
Assad’s opponents, Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Hajjar, have been accused of being little more than “pawns” to make a seemingly illegitimate election appear otherwise. Assad’s campaign slogan is that of “unity,” responsive to the demands of the Syrian people. His campaign recently came under fire on social media when Facebook was found to be posting sponsored links to his campaign sites.
While the UN urged the government not to hold a vote, warning that it would make the current civil situation worse, voting commenced last Wednesday for refugees in Lebanon, and continued through to this week. The 2.8 million refugees who left Syria since the beginning of the conflict amassed in Lebanon to vote, many in favor of Assad. Violence, as predicted, erupted at the embassy where voting was taking place, and many refugees who were abstaining claimed, ‘“anyone who votes has no morals.”’ Voting in Syria is only taking place in areas of government control, the regime claiming many rebel held areas were too dangerous.
Assad’s Strategic Win
In this unity based platform, Assad’s outreach has garnered huge levels of support from pro-government refugees, and there exists the belief that his victory will provide the popular mandate needed to crush the rebellion. To increase the appeared legitimacy of today’s election, Assad ratified the constitution and opened up the competition to other candidates, though severe restrictions were put in place regarding who could run and who could or could not vote. Many supporters of the opposition are among those disallowed to vote while in Lebanon, further bolstering Assad’s numbers. Ultimately, the election has been set up to serve Assad’s agenda and maintain his stronghold over the country. As stated in Foreign Policy Magazine, “Election results will be hauled out at every opportunity to justify regime intransigence, continue to stymie the efforts of the U.N. Security Council to act on issues such as the regime’s obstruction of humanitarian assistance, and undermine possibilities for a negotiated settlement.”
What is clear is that by running and winning office, as he undoubtedly will, Assad is celebrating his ability to outlast Syria’s war. While only time will tell if, by taking this election, Assad will gain the legitimacy needed to take back control of Syria from the rebels, for now, he seems to have outplayed the various rebel groups within Syria. By bending this election to his will, Bashar al-Assad has reclaimed his throne.
(Photo credit by Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images via the Washington Post)
Oset Babur and Ashley Dennee are Interns in the Communications department of the EastWest Institute.