The first fragile shoots of Arab democracy

Tomorrow, Palestinians will go to the polls to elect a successor to Yasser Arafat. Donald Macintyre reports from the campaign trail in Ramallah
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Mahmoud Abbas may be the favourite, but Mustafa Barghouti, his probable runner-up, has a notable flair for publicity. If you are an opposition Palestinian presidential candidate, being manhandled by three plainclothes Israeli policemen into an unmarked white pick-up as you attempt to attend Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as Mr Barghouti was yesterday, is the stuff of television pictures money can't buy.

Mahmoud Abbas may be the favourite, but Mustafa Barghouti, his probable runner-up, has a notable flair for publicity. If you are an opposition Palestinian presidential candidate, being manhandled by three plainclothes Israeli policemen into an unmarked white pick-up as you attempt to attend Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as Mr Barghouti was yesterday, is the stuff of television pictures money can't buy.

Mr Barghouti, a 50-year-old academic, former communist and human-rights activist, may not be quite as charismatic as his very distant imprisoned relative Marwan, the missing candidate in the campaign which culminates in the election of a new Palestinian president tomorrow. But he knows a lot about how to use the media in a modern political campaign.

We were therefore told in plenty of time that Mr Barghouti would make his way down from the Mount of Olives to the Lion's Gate to the Old City; so of course we were there in time to hear the Israeli policemen ask for orders on his walkie-talkie: "Marwan Barghouti is here. What shall I do with him?" and the answer come crackling back: "Stop him, stop him for the time being, don't let him enter." And then Mr Barghouti, who when asked by one reporter a few moments earlier since when he had been so devout, had answered: "I am not a fundamentalist, but I respect my religion", raised his voice to levels that could be picked up by the TV soundmen and said: "I am a presidential candidate; you can't arrest a presidential candidate ..." before being bundled into the police vehicle.

Yet if this was no more than an election stunt, it was a highly effective one, pregnant with multiple meaning. Mr Barghouti's brief detention - he was later deposited outside the city limits at a checkpoint in Abu Dis - dramatised the story of Israeli control of the Old City under the occupation which followed the 1967 war. It helped to reaffirm Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. It drew attention to the restrictions - psychological and practical - that Palestinian election officials say are still obtaining in Jerusalem despite Israel's decision to allow 120,000 East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote.

It helped to maxiise interest in the election among Palestinians in the city where the turnout is predicted to be particularly low. It reminded Palestinians, as if they needed it, that West Bank residents like Mr Barghouti cannot enter the city even to pray without the requisite permits.

And it stole a significant march on the front-runner Mahmoud Abbas, who had earlier decided to forsake the political risks of entering inner Jerusalem, claiming that he didn't want to appear in the city surrounded by the armed Israeli guards the authorities had said would have been necessary. Those brief televised moments, in other words, sent out a series of powerful message that no amount of speechmaking could do.

But there is another reason for not simply dismissing Mr Barghouti's carefully staged detention as an empty stunt. Like every Western politician, Mr Barghouti - who is expected to be the runner-up on Sunday - knows that election campaigns are all about being the story of the day. That he could achieve that so successfully in conditions which do not apply in most Western countries is actually an example of the democratic process - however faltering, circumscribed and deeply imperfect it may be in these elections - at work.

Indeed, Mr Barghouti's candidacy is proving rather important to this process. This isn't because he is expected to win (which despite his protestations yesterday that he can still pull it off, he isn't). It's because on Mr Barghouti's shoulders rests the principal task of making Sunday's vote into anything like a genuine electoral contest. He is the candidate, in effect, of the left, and the one independent expected to make a respectable showing, and as such he will give Mr Abbas, assuming he wins, something like the democratic legitimacy the PLO chairman and probable future president will badly need for the urgent and daunting tasks he will confront from Monday morning.

So far, Mr Barghouti - in the absence of his more famous though very different namesake, the man who could conceivably have turned this contest into a real cliff-hanger - has been doing pretty well in that highly important role. He claimed yesterday that he represents the "silent majority" of Palestinians, who reject Hamas as the standard-bearers of a diehard armed militancy still committed to the idea (albeit increasingly as a theoretical abstraction rather than a practical reality) of a Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, and Fatah, which monopolises power in the Palestinian Authority. That claim may be over-ambitious. But he has been able, at least in fairly modest ways, to differentiate himself from the front-runner and to lay claim to be leading a democratic opposition: one, he was careful to acknowledge yesterday, that might be prepared under the right circumstances to join a "coalition" leadership after polling day.

He claims to have pushed Mr Abbas into hardening his line in favour of prisoner releases, and on refugees. Mr Barghouti says Israel must acknowledge the "right of return" but that the "application is a matter for negotiation." He has consistently criticised corruption and "nepotism and favouritism" in the Palestinian Authority, yesterday citing the mundane but still striking and all-too-familiar example of a Palestinian student who scored successively 95 and 97 per cent in his ratings, only to see a fellow student who scored 70 per cent but had the right connections to get the scholarship he coveted.

And for good or ill, he has implicitly criticised Mr Abbas's calls for an immediate halt to rocket attacks from Gaza on Israelis asserting - without actually endorsing the strategy of the armed intifada - that those "living under an occupation by military force have the right to resist that occupation". And finally he has been at pains to reject the possibility of the "interim agreement" falling well short of Palestinian aspirations, a point upon which Mr Abbas, so his critics claim, might be prepared to compromise.

These differences may mainly be tactical rather than substantial. But the point is not so much whether Mr Barghouti presents a real or cogent alternative to what Mr Abbas has to offer, or whether he has many of the presidential qualifications he claims to possess, but which many Palestinians believe he lacks. Rather, it's that his mere presence in the campaign, almost certainly as the leading also-ran, has helped to make what risked becoming a Soviet-style shoo-in for Mr Abbas resemble something more like a democratic contest; one which has belied at least some of the assumptions that were made as Yasser Arafat lay dying about what would happen after his death.

So far at least the Palestinian polity not erupted into civil war and the kind of bloody score-settling that many predicted. Instead, it may not be too much to say that the first few fragile shoots - however uncertain and tentative - of an Arab democratic process have began to make themselves visible in this campaign.

True, Mr Abbas's rallies, with their endless chants and slogans from the noisy youth wing used to pledging eternal loyalty to Yasser Arafat, are mainly shows of Fatah strength laced with a streak of US-style razzamatazz. Neverthless, Mr Abbas, a quintessential backroom figure, has found himself in the unusual position of actually having to perform on the stump. He gave his first international conference of the election last night, and his calm and businesslike hour-long press conference in Ramallah was very different from those rallies.

In one symbolic change from the Arafat years, it actually started on time. His handling of it was confident, even occasionally joky as when he teased the famous Al Jazeera correspondent, Walid Omari, by telling him that he might be very tall, but that didn't prevent him from using the microphone like everyone else - or when he challenged his interpreter to translate into Mandarin for the benefit of the Chinese reporter who had asked a question. Notably free of the rhetoric of the past, Mr Abbas admitted he had no "magic wand" and that his 14-point programme represented "our ambitions".

And no, he didn't have any choice but to deal with Ariel Sharon, who was the Prime Minister of Israel. "I will meet him and talk to him and seek to persuade him of Palestinian rights and to change the situation." And what if he didn't succeed? "We will comment on that later." Most notably, Mr Abbas said even more emphatically than in the past that he was "calling for an end to the chaos of the guns", insisting: "All the Palestinian factions are ready to accept a ceasefire. Between us there are not major differences. I am optimistic there will be an agreement on this."

In an interesting interview with Amira Hass in Ha'aretz, Faysaal Hourani, the Palestinian intellectual, peace activist and opponent of the Oslo accords yesterday suggested that all the candidates attribute greater importance to the election than it actually has. Under present conditions, he argued, no president can have the "necessary tools" to do the job in hand, that he will therefore have little power, and that most of Mr Abbas's supporters have "very limited expectations" of what he can achieve.

"They see him as a practical man who might bring about improvements in their difficult daily lives." While some hope Mr Abbas can restart the peace process, Mr Hourani says he has yet to meet anyone "who thinks that there will be a peace in the foreseeable future".

But he said that a positive aspect of the campaign was that political debate was now about the important questions, such as what Palestinians want, what Israel will do and what role the Americans will play and that Mr Abbas was using "clearer language than Palestinians had used in the past" and that was improving his image among Palestinians. Last night's performance appeared to bear that judgement out.

This election has many flaws. Even before polling begins tomorrow, there is a lively debate within the EU monitoring group over what kind of commentary to give on how far it has fulfilled international norms for freedom and fairness. Some members argue that the conditions of occupation - despite Israeli promises to pull back troops from today for three days - under which the election is being conducted cannot fail to undermine the strength of the Authority. Nor is this just a matter of Israeli closures and restrictions; Mr Abbas's opponents have argued that, with the full resources of the Palestinian Authority at his disposal, he has an unfair advantage over his rivals.

Yet for all that, the democratic impulse is stirring. Yesterday morning at his press conference, Mr Barghouti allowed himself for a few moments to stop promoting his own candidacy and say that he was proud the Palestinians had confounded those who had expected internecine bloodshed after Arafat's death. He spoke for more than just those in his campaign when he said the Palestinians had demonstrated "that we can have democracy even under occupation" and in the process that "we deserve to have what other people in the world have achieved, our own independent sovereign state." He was proud, he said, to be leading a democratic opposition grouping able to command real support that was perhaps the first in - and therefore an example to - the whole Arab world. He has a point.

This tentative and bumpy experiment in living democracy will be watched this Sunday with intense interest - and perhaps a good deal of apprehension - by many of the Arab regimes in the region for whom autocracy has been so long a way of life.