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A Democratic Intifada


Democracy is probably going to be the most misused word in the news during the month of January. If there had been a way of measuring we even might have come to the conclusion that the month of January was going to be the month when democracy was the most distorted word for many years. The reason for that is the event of having two elections, in two occupied countries, both in the Middle East region in the month of January. The elections in Palestine were held the 9th January and the elections in Iraq are planned to be held the 30th January. And what everybody keeps on saying everywhere in mainstream media is that that is good for democracy. So isn’t?

What has taken place in Palestine and what will take place in Iraq has nothing to do with democracy in the way I understand democracy. In a real democracy, a participatory democracy you have people participating and deciding, you have a process going on, and you give people possibilities to decide over economy and welfare. One basic thing, not to forget, democracy is linked to a territory, whether it is a city, a nation-state, or a space on the web, it is a territory where you can move freely and decide over.

If we start with that, people have not been able to move freely in occupied territories, neither in Palestine nor in Iraq. During the Palestinian electoral campaign lots of Palestinian people have been killed by the Israeli occupation forces. Checkpoints have not been taken away. Harassment and humiliation has been as frequent as always. Settlements continue to expand and the Wall to be built. On election day the waste majority of the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem were not allowed to vote there. Around New Year 17 year-old boy, Riziq Musleh, was shot by an Israeli sniper in Rafah while attempting to hang a campaign poster. That is not democracy.

Actually it has been the formal liberal democratic criteria’s, like freedom of movement, possibility to take part in a campaign, vote secretly etc that has been undermined by the occupying forces. But democracy is not only about voting. The process, the talks among and in between people, the possibility of criticising, of debating political differences is democracy as well.

Dr.Mustafa Barghouthi, Palestinian presidential candidate that got the second highest vote, 19,8 percent after Abbas 62,32 percent (none of the other candidates reached over 3,5 percent) has all the time taken the election seriously. He has campaigned and every time he and his crew has been detained, harassed and even beaten up by Israeli soldiers he has gone public with it. That happened so many times that some western medias even started to make jokes about it; as if Dr. Barghouti should suit himself for going to the wrong places.

Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi has criticised the conditions for the campaign, the harassment and problems posed by the occupation, and the irregularities made by the Palestinian Authority but he has never denied the importance of the elections. And he should know. Barghouiti was involved in the historic process of democracy during the first Intifada when an important part of the Palestinian people engaged in grass root democracy in popular committees, lijan sha´biya.

Lijan is the Arabic word for committees, and sha´biya is an adjective that comes from sha´ab, people. During the first months of 1988 the Palestinian people organised in committees and a system of committees was developed. Their name was lijan sha´biya. That was the Palestinian way of resisting occupation and creating something in the empty place of where a state or a government should have been. Everything was organised in a democratic way; school, agriculture, housing, security and health – it was all discussed in the popular committees.

The democratic Intifada was an enormous success, more and more people participated. A parallel power was established. As there was no Palestinian state or authority the popular committees had those functions. They delivered security, education for kids going to school, healthcare for the sick, and seeds for the farmers – basically what they did was to ensure life despite occupation. And they did that through democracy.

The democratic rise was both successful and contagious and as an increasing amount of people participated in the committees the Israeli occupation forces figured that they had to do something about it. The army considered that the committees undermined the Israeli State. In the summer of 1988 the Israelis made a law, stating that involvement in a popular committee was to be punished with ten years in prison. However, the committees were difficult to erase – and the Israeli army itself gave the best explanation: “it is impossible to place one soldier next to every Palestinian”.

The intensity of the popular committees ended. By the repression of the occupation forces, by the creation of a Palestinian Authority along with the Oslo accord and by transforming activist groups into NGO:s and those becoming corrupt lijan sha´biya vanished.

What lijan sha´biya did was to show that democracy is not a luxury item that comes at the end of a process, and it is either something that you can put on exception waiting for better times to come. Democracy is something needed, something crucial, the best way of organising. And the Palestinian people showed that during the first Intifada.

For sure neither the US nor Israel are interested in democracy in Palestine. Arafat was never very interested in democracy, not the participation or movement. The leadership does not seem to be interested in real democracy either. Corruption has increased since NGO:s started to get money from abroad to “finance” democratic development. From a democratic point of view I would say that democracy was more developed in Palestine during the time of lijan sha´biya than now.

But that is not the story they want us to hear. The story they want us to hear is the one of Palestine taking the first steps to democracy. The story about the high turnout in the Palestinian elections, when what they do is that they exaggerate the numbers and adjust the story. CNN tells the story of a 65 percent turnout of 1,8 million voters.

The truth is less than 1,8 million eligible voters, only two-thirds of them registered, making that a total turn out maybe as low as 46 percent. Other newspapers, channels and experts tell the story of the first steps of democracy, praising the campaign, showing posters of different candidates, but none would tell the story of the amazing democratic effort the Palestinian people did during the first Intifada to organise their society.

Democracy is not, yet, a game invented by the US Government. If it was it would be ok if they set up the rules, decided the name and colour of the players, and decided how to score the highest points. But if it was a game we would have the choice of not buying it. We don’t have that option, but we do have the option of telling another story.

The outside world has told the Palestinian people who are the good and the bad candidates, what politics is good and what is bad and they even got Richard Gere on a TV-advert telling them it was good to vote. They EU and the US and lots of other governments and personalities have interfered in Palestinian politics. What the outside world should have done was to interfere in the conditions of elections. They outside world should have provided necessary and democratic conditions for the elections. But they did not. Election took place under occupation. We will see more of all this in Iraq – coming soon to a TV near you. Look out for another story.

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