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Leaders of rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, met for the first time in four years yesterday in Egypt. A sign of how changes in the Middle East are impacting the region, the leaders sealed a reconciliation agreement brokered by Egypt’s new government. We explore how the deal will affect next year’s elections in the Palestinian territories, the Middle East peace process, and the Palestinian goal of gaining U.N. recognition as a state.
- Samer Shehata Assistant Professor of Arab Politics, Georgetown University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how Washington has changed since the Mount Pleasant riots 20 years ago and how it hasn't, but first, Hamas and Fatah, the rival Palestinian factions, met in Cairo yesterday for the first time in four years. The two factions have been unable to reconcile. With Fatah's leader, Mahmoud Abbas, presiding over the West Bank, and Hamas led by Khaled Meshaal running the Gaza Strip. Egypt's new government brokered the deal to bring the two together in a unity government, but it remains to be seen whether the Palestinian factions can work together and what a unity government for Palestine means as changes across the Middle East continue to reshape the balance of power in the region.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us from studios at Georgetown University is Samer Shehata. He is a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. Samer, thank you so much for joining us.
PROF. SAMER SHEHATAYou're welcome.
NNAMDISome people have said that the uprisings across the Middle East have changed the rules of the game in the region. How has that affected the leaders in the Palestinian territories?
SHEHATAIt's affected the leaders in the Palestinian territories in at least three different ways. The first and most important is that with the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime in Cairo, a new Egypt has emerged with a significantly different foreign policy. I think this is the most important factor. The Mubarak regime was very much anti-Hamas, and we knew that before, but the WikiLeaks documents revealed that, in which Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief and briefly the vice president, was quoted as saying to American officials David Petraeus and Admiral Mullen that Egypt is trying to, quote, "undermine Hamas," unquote, in the Gaza Strip, and that they're trying to bring Abbas' Fatah back into power in the Gaza Strip.
SHEHATASo that's the first reason, a fundamentally different Egypt, a fundamentally different foreign policy. One that is neutral between both Hamas and Fatah and is generally working for reconciliation as opposed to what it was previously doing. The second, of course, is, as you mentioned, there have been protests not only in Egypt and Tunisia and Syria and other places but also in the West Bank and Gaza. On a much smaller scale, protests calling for unity in Ramallah and in Gaza and in other West Bank cities, unity between Hamas and Fatah and an end to the split that has, you know, been in effect and really paralyzed, I think, both the residents of Gaza as well as those in the West Bank for a number of reasons.
SHEHATAAnd then, the third, of course, is that there are also things going on in Syria, tragic and terrible events, the tremendous repression and violence used by the Syrian regime against protesters calling for freedom and democracy in that country, and, of course, Khaled Meshaal and the political bureau of Hamas is based in Damascus. And I think that regardless of what happens, Syria will certainly be weakened in the future whether or not Mr. Assad holds on into -- in power. So that's certainly has also been a motivating factor for Hamas as well.
NNAMDIHow has the new Egyptian government changed? You mentioned how it's changed in terms of its approach to this issue, but how has its composition changed? What does the leadership look like?
SHEHATAWell, right now, of course, we have in place of the president, we have something called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is about two dozen senior military officers led by the minister of defense, Hussein Tantawi, and they are taking the role of the executive and playing in effect a very large part in Egyptian policy making and so on. And then, of course, there's a new Cabinet headed by a new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, who had previously been a Cairo University professor and briefly participated in the anti-Mubarak protests, and he actually was in a Mubarak Cabinet as minister of transport for a brief period of time some years ago.
SHEHATASo the individuals have changed, and what is important is that Egypt's foreign policy for this discussion has also changed. The Mubarak foreign policy was very much out of touch with Egyptian feelings and aspirations. Egypt's position regionally had deteriorated significantly. Its foreign policy was viewed as too close to Washington and Tel Aviv, not really furthering Egyptian national interests or Arab interests, and that's really changed. We've seen that manifest itself with the success of the initial reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. We've also seen new discourse about Iran and the possibility of reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Iran as well as other issues in the region.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Samer Shehata. He is a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. We're talking about the agreement signed yesterday between Hamas and Fatah in which there will now be a unity government. But, Samer, national elections are scheduled for the Palestinians next year. Some have questioned whether the last election in 2006 gave Hamas more influence than it should have had because of its -- because of the winner-take-all process?
SHEHATAWell, that's right. I mean, you know, political scientists will tell you that election systems, electoral laws and so on really do have an impact on outcomes, and you can imagine a system in which a group wins 55 percent of the votes but manages to end up, because of the way the system is designed, with 75 percent of the seats in the legislature. For example, moving to a P.R. or a proportional representation system would alleviate that and give those who don't win a majority someplace. So there hasn't been any explicit talk about changing the rules of the electoral system, but, of course, that is open for discussion.
SHEHATAAnd I think also having gone through the experience of the January 26, 2006 elections and what the international reaction to that was, I think everyone will be very alert and sensitive to the possibility of an outcome that would potentially damage Palestinian national interests and their hopes for the establishment of a independent sovereign viable Palestinian state in Gaza and all of the West Bank.
NNAMDIThere were protests in Gaza in March calling not for Hamas to step down but calling for national unity. That seemed to be the way the so-called Arab spring might have been playing out in that location. But when Hamas and Fatah met in Cairo yesterday, they didn't give a joint statement rather they gave two statements, and they sounded still pretty far apart on the issues.
SHEHATAThat's right, and in fact, you know, without getting too much into the details, there was also some disagreement as to where different Hamas and Fatah officials would sit and how long the different speeches would be, but in the end, both Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Meshaal, the political head of Hamas, spoke. And, of course, this is an agreement in principles. The details have yet to be worked out; that is the future presence of Fatah, for example, in Gaza, the release of prisoners that both parties hold and so on. So the devil might very well be in the details, but I think that there will be some progress made, and I think they have agreed in principle to a unity government, to a government composed of technocrats led by an independent figure.
SHEHATASo that someone who is closely aligned with Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas, Salam Fayad, for example, the current prime minister who is very much admired in Washington, for example, maybe too much so for Hamas' liking, will definitely not hold that post. Likewise, I think someone very much affiliated with Hamas will also not be the next Palestinian prime minister.
NNAMDIThis deal has given a lot of Palestinians hope, but reconciliation has failed in the past. Are there reasons this time might be different given the approach you mentioned of using technocrats?
SHEHATAI think it might for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is the idea, of course, that a divided Palestinian polity is in no way equipped, is in no way powerful enough unified to engage in any kind of meaningful negotiations that could mean something in which the Palestinian body politic would agree. That's certainly, I think, a reason to have some optimism. Secondly, as I said, the Middle East, and as you've mentioned, the region is changing, and I think that Egypt is going to play a new role, a more energized role with pursuing an independent foreign policy, I think, positively contributing to not only Palestinian reconciliation but, hopefully, in the Israeli-Palestinian talks. And there might be some changes in Washington and maybe in Israel in terms of public options as well. We can hope so.
NNAMDIMahmoud Abbas is hoping for U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state by September. Will this new unity help or hurt that case?
SHEHATAI think it will definitely help that case, and, of course, not only are the Palestinians calling for that, the change of government in Egypt means that the Egyptians have already announced that they are fully in favor of the recognition of a Palestinian state internationally. Previously under Mubarak, that was not the case. They were much closer to the American position, so I think, and there are some European countries who have also expressed sympathy with that, with passing a resolution of that sort. So, you know, the ball is moving in one direction. Again, as you know, Mr. Netanyahu has denounced the reconciliation and is critical of any government that includes Hamas.
SHEHATAAgain, we don't know the details. There have -- there were some positive statements that Mr. Meshaal made yesterday talking about the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and, of course, he's on record in the past of calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in those two territories without reference to greater Israel, an implicit recognition, not an explicit but an implicit recognition of Israel. So we'll see how things develop, what happens with Mr. Netanyahu's position whether it changes or not, what the United States' position on all of this will be. That's still undetermined. And, of course, there's talk in Washington that Mr. Obama is going to be giving a major policy speech about the Middle East in the coming weeks, and we're curious to see whether the issue of Palestine and Israel will be included in that -- in those remarks.
NNAMDIIndeed, there are those who have made the argument, including, of course, Mr. Netanyahu in Israel, that this unity is bad for the peace process. What peace process?
SHEHATAWell, that's exactly right. I mean, there was no peace process, and in fact even when there was an active peace process and people were negotiating, the peace process, quote, unquote, there was no -- there were no benefits that the Palestinians derived. So this might kick-start the situation, and I think that, again, if there's international pressure and movement, and that's one of the things that we're seeing already that the Arab states and particularly Egypt now are moving away from a model in which the U.S. is the primary broker or peacemaker into a model in which the international community, including the -- a bigger role for the U.N., for the European Union and other states and so on. If they are the primary facilitators of Palestinian-Israeli negotiation and peace, that might also lead to positive developments.
NNAMDISamer Shehata is a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. Thank you so much for joining us.
SHEHATAYou're very welcome.
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