Stanford Business


Democrat in Palestine

Mustafa Barghouthi and students
Barghouthi with Mohammad Subeh of Stanford’s Muslim Student Awareness Group,
left, and Tarun Desikan,
second-year MBA student,
during an April 2006 visit to
the Business School.
Photo by Anne Knudsen

He dislikes Hamas, but Sloan fellow Mustafa Barghouthi sees hope in Palestine’s nascent democracy.

Mustafa Barghouthi, Sloan ’95, co-founded and heads the political party Palestinian National Initiative. He placed second in the 2005 presidential election for the Palestinian Authority and is now a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian parliament. A prominent voice for democratic reform in the Middle East, Barghouthi visited the Business School in April and answered questions from students. Here is an edited version of that exchange.

Q: You were a medical doctor, not a businessman, but you came halfway around the world to study at Stanford Business School. Why?

When I came back from medical school in Russia, our country’s situation was terrible, and right from the beginning I knew I needed to be more than just a doctor in a hospital. That’s why I helped found a nongovernmental organization called Palestinian Medical Relief. Eventually it became one of the largest NGOs in the country, providing health care to approximately one-third of the population, mainly in rural areas and to underprivileged groups.

At one point in my life, when the Oslo Accords were signed [the secretly negotiated agreement establishing the Palestinian Authority as Palestine’s interim government], I thought that everybody had gone into a state of collective craziness; nobody wanted to see the reality. I was critical of Oslo. I had been chosen a member of the Palestinian negotiating team in Madrid. Then there were the secret talks in Oslo. Since it is so difficult to convince people that things are wrong, I thought that maybe it was the best time to take a break and get exposed to some experience. That’s exactly the value of the Sloan program, I think. It gives you exposure to so many new ideas and new people. Also, I needed time to improve my management skills, basically, and my leadership skills. And I needed time to think.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to try to affect the political process?

I have been active socially and politically since I was a student. I think I joined my first political organization when I was 14. That’s normal in Palestine. Our life is difficult. The first shock I had was when we were occupied in 1967. I looked around and felt then, as a child, that the whole world I knew was collapsing. All the forces and people we were relying on failed us. Then something happened, and I had this very strong feeling of responsibility, of duty. We could not wait for others to do things for us; it was our duty to do things for our people.

When I became a doctor I realized it was not enough to treat a single patient, or 10 patients, or to have a great hospital with the best equipment in the world if [access] is limited to a [few] people. You have to change the whole health system. But then, even after we built health organizations and improved the situation, we realized that was not enough. There are bigger problems like how much of the budget is allocated to health. How can you improve the situation when the Palestine government allocates less than 5 percent of its budget to health and puts 28 percent in security?

Q: What has happened since you returned from Stanford to Palestine in 1995?

The most important thing that has happened during the last couple of years is that we had a democratic transformation into a multi-party system. I know that everybody is so overwhelmed now with one idea, that Hamas won the elections, but this is only one side of the issue. The most important fact is that we had a true democratic transformation. It didn’t happen because of Hamas; it happened because of people like us—democrats and democratic groups who have worked very hard for over 20 years building civil society organizations and trying to convince the people that it is better for us to go in the direction of democratic transformation. That’s why I look at the situation now in a positive way. I see a very good process.

I don’t like the fact that Hamas won; we competed against them in the elections. In fact, Hamas got only 43 percent of the votes, but they got the majority of the seats in parliament because in our system the winner doesn’t get a proportional number of seats. But this is only one aspect of a process that is, by itself, a very good process. Palestinians had a chance to elect their local councils for the first time in 30 years. This was the first time we had real presidential elections and real parliamentary elections—real in the sense that there was no falsification and no mismanagement of the results. To be honest with you, it gives me a great sense of pride that we are the ones who are leading democratic transformation in the Arab world. There isn’t yet another country in the region, or in the Arab world, that has managed to achieve this level of democracy. I think it’s a great achievement that will empower the Palestinians and make them more capable of negotiating their future.

Q: Do you think democracy is sustainable in your country?

Yes. I say that because so many people tried to prevent it from happening and couldn’t. Why was it possible to have this democratic transformation in Palestine and not, for instance, in Syria or Jordan, or even Lebanon? They have a certain democratic system, but not as in Palestine. I think the main reason was that because of the occupation the authority that existed in Palestine was foreign. Nobody perceived the Israeli authority as local. The absence of a local government forced us to go in the direction of self-reliance and self-organization to survive. That, along with an unprecedented exposure to the external world, has led to the gradual development of very powerful civil society organizations: women’s groups, medical groups, agricultural groups, trade unions, student councils, and so on. These civil society structures became instrumental in terms of political parties. Sometimes people ask me why Islamic groups are so powerful in Arab countries now, and the answer is very simple: Democratic groups have been suppressed for such a long time that the only space left for political opposition is the mosque, where people can hide and try to organize. But in Palestine, democracy came from inside the society itself. That makes me believe it will last. Actually, what I’m worried about is external intervention.

Q: What about economic development?

One of the main obstacles is the that we have about 60 percent of the people living below the line of poverty, which is $2 per capita [per day].We also have very restrictive conditions in terms of freedom of passage, exchange of goods, and export and import that prevent the evolution of investment. Yet people are enthusiastic toward investing and creating new things. There are lots of people who would like to come home and invest in Palestine. The problem is that the conditions on the ground are very difficult and complicated. They block practically any possibility of achieving that [goal].

But I believe that our political transformation will have a great effect on the peace process, which is the main factor that would help the economy. Why? We are poor not because we are not working and not because we cannot be a good, developed economy. We are poor because of occupation, obstruction, and an inability to have a normal and functioning market.

Q: From a government standpoint, is there a strategic move that can be made to pull in allies within the region and push the Israeli side to go to a peace process?

Well, that is the Hamas line, to concentrate on the Arab and Islamic world, which I don’t think is wise. I think we should also concentrate on Europe and the United States and the rest of the globe. This is a global world these days. We cannot deal with our issues without considering the role of everybody, especially when it comes to Israel—which cannot survive for 24 hours without the support of the United States.

Democracy will be the precondition for achieving real and durable peace in the Middle East. Why? Because only when two democratic entities are capable of negotiating with each other on an equal basis can an agreement be reached that is fair and just and lasting. This would be good for everybody: for Palestinians, for Israelis, for Arabs, and for the world—which should have already become tired of this conflict. You have to remember that next year will be the 40th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Forty years! This is the longest occupation in modern history.

Q: Whose definition of democracy are you following, or are you coming up with your own version?

Democracy does not mean just democratic elections. In democracy, there are basic principles that are global, like separation of powers, an independent judiciary system, and freedom of speech. But I do not think there is a set model that you can just transfer to other countries. I think that each country has to reach its own version of democratic practice, on the basis of its own heritage, traditions, and culture. To be honest, I do not think that democracy is the best political system. But it is the best available. There are flaws. For example, there is an emphasis on political democracy, but very rarely do people speak about social democracy, which means that there have to be equal opportunities for people. I think democracy is like having water: You cannot survive without it, but water alone will not give you what you need in life.

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