Under Abbas, Majority Say They Can’t Speak Freely

RAMALLAH (AP) -

Two-thirds of Palestinians say they are afraid to criticize Mahmoud Abbas, according to a poll, and some of the Palestinian president’s recent actions only seem to confirm claims that dissent comes at a price.

Last month, Abbas outlawed the Palestinian Authority’s largest labor union and briefly jailed its two leaders for organizing strikes. Security agents routinely monitor social media and send threats or complaints to some of those criticizing Abbas. Meanwhile, the Palestinian leader’s Fatah movement continues to purge supporters of an exiled rival.

Critics say that after a decade in power, Abbas is overseeing a largely authoritarian system with shrinking room for dissent — a claim denied by Abbas supporters who say Palestinians enjoy more political freedoms than most in the Arab world.

With his approval rate down to 35 percent, Abbas lashes out against those he views as a political threat, such as former aide Mohammed Dahlan, now based in the United Arab Emirates, and ex-Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

In 10 years in office, the 79-year-old has avoided grooming a successor.

The Hamas-Fatah split was largely responsible for eroding political institutions, such as parliament, and blocking presidential and parliamentary elections, now five years overdue, analysts said. This has opened the door for Abbas to consolidate power, they said.

“We face an autocratic regime that doesn’t believe in any freedoms, in freedom of unions or freedom of speech,” said Jihad Harb, a writer and Fatah member. “The people are now terrified. They don’t speak up, fearing reprisal.”

Ahmed Assaf, a Fatah spokesman, said criticism is permitted — provided it does not cross a line by accusing Abbas or members of his government of being traitors or infidels.

“If you look around and see what is going on in the Arab world, you realize how much freedom we enjoy here,” Assaf said.

Most Palestinians in the PA appear to disagree, according to a poll published last week by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Sixty-six percent said they believe they cannot criticize Abbas without fear, according to the survey among 1,270 respondents, with an error margin of 3 percentage points.