“The Status Quo Is Changing”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Egypt, Arab democracy, and statehood.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad

Although Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a strong supporter of the Palestinian Authority, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad sees the uprising in Egypt as positive—the beginning of a more democratic country. And he argues that Egypt will not be the end of the story; the very existence of other governments in the region, Fayyad says, will depend on how they react to the winds of change. The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth spoke to Fayyad Thursday in his office in Ramallah. Excerpts:

L.W.: What is your assessment of the situation in Egypt? 
S.F.: The notion that people would do this so spontaneously is something that does not happen every day, but it did happen.

L.W.: In Egypt?
S.F.: First Tunisia. Tunisia is a better example.

L.W.: Were you surprised? 
S.F.: Although I now understand it, it took everybody by surprise. I cannot tell you I was not surprised. After Tunisia, people started to think it could happen elsewhere. People started talking about it in terms of contagion—moving from one country to another.

L.W.: How do you see this playing out in Egypt? Will the army stay in control? Will Mubarak really leave? Who is in control right now?
S.F.: I can’t even begin to guess how things will happen and who will be end up being in control and under what circumstances. It may help our thinking if one were to diagnose what happened first in Tunisia and then in Egypt. To me, this is not a revolt of the hungry. This looks like a case of people revolting because they want to attain political rights. It is something that has happened because there was a feeling of a deficit when it comes to a feeling of affiliation, of citizenship, that your rights are respected.

This desire for change should be honored and how you (handle) it will have a lot to do with the outcome.

L.W.: What did you think of the way the United States treated Mubarak? 
S.F.: You have Mubarak himself, his government, the regime in Egypt in the midst of something unprecedented. You have this constant barrage of advice that calls on Mubarak to do this, to do that.

L.W.: By the United States?
S.F.: Not only the United States. From the United States to the Maldives—no shortage of advice as to what should happen. In a situation like this, I am not really sure that that is the best way to do it. At some point, it begins to appear as though there is interventionism here. I am looking at it from the future of this legitimate desire for positive change. What is the best chance for it to succeed? I believe it is best for the process to run its course, for advice to be given quietly, not publicly—or you could lead to this happening in an unruly way and lead to a hard landing, and end up with an outcome that is contrary to your own interests.

L.W.: By a hard landing you mean … ? 
S.F.: Soft landing is a way to move into an era where rules of the game are adjusted in a way that fits instead of starting from scratch. Egypt, of course is important for Egyptians; but it is important from a regional point of view. What happens to them is of huge significance.

L.W.: Isn’t Egypt under Mubarak the strongest backer of the Palestinian Authority? 
S.F.: They have definitely been in that corner, Mubarak and Egypt historically.

L.W.: Do you worry about a post-Mubarak Egypt?
S.F.: I am not really worried. I was never fond of the notion of governments [saying] support us or else you get the alternative. I don’t think alliances should be built this way because they are not sustainable. The best alliances are built on shared values. You can’t have a sustainable relationship between two parties where one party runs its government based on values and principles that are totally at odds with the values and norms of the other ally.

L.W.: Do you feel this was the case with Egypt?
S.F.: It is not without reason that people went out on the streets. After all, elections in Egypt happened not that long ago. But what kind of elections are we having? Are we having inclusive elections? Open election processes subject to transparency?

Do they happen with regularity and by date certain, or do they happen once? If this is not acceptable to the citizens of Europe and the United States, why should they be thought of as adequate or OK for Arabs?

The lesson of this is that the Arab world should no longer be looked at as if we are different. We are not different. We want to live as free people with dignity, enfranchisement, basic rights, and governments responsive to our needs.

L.W.: So was the U.S. message correct?
S.F.: I wish it were handled differently. Imagine yourself in Mubarak’s shoes, bombarded by statements from all around the world. Arabs are not orphans. It may be all for the better to be honest with you. This whole notion that there are other regional powers here—Iran, Turkey—wanting to spread their wings, acting as if they know what is best for us. Leave us alone. We are going through a period of difficulty. It is an adjustment. It is a natural process. The desire has to be honored. It is about basic rights. We are just like you. Out of this will emerge a better region.

L.W.: If there are elections in Egypt, who do you believe will win? The Muslim Brotherhood?
S.F.: There is too much speculation in that direction.

L.W.: Do you think democracy should come in stages?
S.F.: There is no such thing. There is the implication that Arabs are not mature enough for democracy. I think there is a fundamental inconsistency with saying, “Hand this over to them in doses, because they are not mature enough for it.” That’s too patronizing.

L.W.: So if there is an election in Egypt?
S.F.: I think it is the only way. People are mature enough for it for certain. If you look at what is really happening in the region, I know what is said about the Muslim Brotherhood—that they may take over. But the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, in Palestine—you will find that they have been in an alliance, either explicit or implicit, with all forces and factions that say no, ranging from extreme right to extreme left. The only thing that has been binding them is opposition to status quo.

But the status quo is changing. Alliances are not going to stay the same. Muslim Brotherhood runs for elections—they win, they lose, based on their own message, their own standing.

L.W.: I heard that every Israeli of a certain age can remember as a child listening to the radio when the vote at the United Nations was taken on Israel’s independence and one by one the states voted. Is it now the turn of Palestinians? I understand you have lined up 11 countries?
S.F.: You mean to go to the United Nations to get a birth certificate for the state of Palestine?

L.W.: I heard 11 nations are already on board.
S.F.: I do not know of any country that is prepared to say they oppose the creation of the Palestinian state.

L.W.: Do you think by September you could have 147 votes?
S.F.: We are preoccupied with getting the structure of a functioning state. Over the next few months, if we manage to project a sense of maturity, mature institutions of the state functioning, performing up to high international standards, then to the whole world this must look like a case where the only thing that is anomalous about the situation is the continuing Israeli occupation. That is when there will be tremendous pressure on the political process to end the occupation.

Will that entail going to the United Nations? Sooner or later we have to go to the United Nations, but my own concept of that is to go to the United Nations holding hands with all of humanity. The idea is for the reality of the state to just be there in a manner that cannot be overlooked by anyone.

L.W.: Do you mean in September? 
S.F.: It better be. I have not given up. No one should give up. We should keep the expectations high. Expecting success is a prerequisite for success. You can’t succeed unless you expect to succeed.

L.W.: So what happened in the recently leaked Palestine Papers, which contained confidential details of peace talks? 
S.F.: The Palestine Papers, the Al Jazeera papers, those two words have a lingering negative impact in terms of perception as far as our people are concerned. That was a rough period. It is not really so much what is in the documents. It is how the whole thing was projected. It was negative. I am not dismissive of the adverse effect of the distribution of those documents.

L.W.: And it doesn’t hurt the Palestinian Authority that Mubarak is gone?
S.F.: Why would I presume that Egypt in the aftermath of this movement is going to be any less supportive? Egyptian people are very supportive of the Palestinian people.

L.W.: Could what happened in Egypt and Tunisia happen in other Arab countries?
S.F.: I believe it can. Definitely. It can happen.