Fatah Old Guard Meets in Party Congress

RAMALLAH (Reuters) -

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas opened the first congress of his Fatah party in seven years on Tuesday, with 1,300 mostly elderly delegates gathered to elect new leaders and discuss policy matters.

The congress was supposed to be held two years ago, but political divisions, both within the party and between the secular Fatah and the rival Islamist Hamas terrorist group, led to repeated delays before Abbas fixed the date only a couple of months ago.

Since then, he has strived to sideline opposition, especially from Mohammed Dahlan, a former security chief and Fatah official who now lives in self-imposed exile in the Gulf, from where he has become a vocal and tireless Abbas critic.

While Dahlan retains some support in Fatah, Abbas has reduced the number of people invited to this congress — at the last, in 2009, there were 2,500 delegates — to limit his rival’s influence. Dahlan was also ejected from the party.

The meeting, scheduled to last five days, will elect new faces to Fatah’s 21-member central committee, the party’s top decision-making body, and a new 80-person revolutionary council, a quasi-parliament.

With Dahlan frozen out, the elderly and predominantly male invitees are expected to vote in favor of Abbas loyalists, ensuring the 81-year-old president is shored up in his position, despite increasing whispers of criticism.

Critics of Abbas, who has been in power for 11 years, say it is long overdue for him to nominate a successor. They also want new national elections: Abbas was elected to a four-year term in 2005, and the last parliamentary vote was in 2006.