The mutiny against Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat within his own mainstream Fatah organization entered its second month today, with the rebels proclaiming, "Time is on our side" and "We will win."
While various dissident leaders insisted that their "corrective movement" was moving on schedule and without a hitch, the aims they outlined here in their Bekaa Valley strongholds appeared to differ radically.
Col. Saeed Abu Musa, the nominal rebel commander, could not bring himself to demand Arafat's ouster as overall leader of the PLO. But one of his chief deputies, Col. Abu Majdi, had no such qualms, although he stressed that Arafat's disgrace should be brought about by "democratic means" and not by force of arms.
An influential civilian adviser, who requested anonymity, said he hoped the mutiny would constitute the first step toward revolution, toppling reactionary leaders and regimes throughout the Arab world. "Arafat forgot our original goal was to liberate Palestine," he said, "and instead turned our revolution into a juggling act."
Yet important Palestinians who claim to know what is really going on swear that the military rebels are irritated less about the political policies they publicly condemn than about Arafat's alleged mistreatment of war heroes, his (now suspended) promotions of cowards and incompetents and his reluctance to purge the corrupt.
The clearest result of the mutiny so far has been the erosion of the PLO's image among Palestinians and in the world at large, encapsulated by an old refugee's bitter remark: "We are doing to ourselves what even the Israelis failed to do. We should be ashamed."
He was speaking outside Wavell Camp at Baalbek in the northern Bekaa, the narrow valley of eastern Lebanon that has become a pale, and very approximate, copy of the state within a state the PLO ran from Beirut until the Israeli invasion a year ago.
Five years after the first shootout between Palestinian factions in nearly a decade, Wavell Camp residents mulled over a month of crisis. Although most sympathized with many rebel demands, they reluctantly blamed the dissidents for the violence.
"We know everything that's wrong since we lost Beirut," one man said, "but Arafat is"--and he hesitated and searched for the right words--"our flag and our land."
Eight miles to the southwest, in the village of Ain es Saouda, Col. Abu Majdi sat on a simple army cot in a requisitioned farmhouse amid green fields of vegetables, wheat and hashish and explained his rationale for the mutiny. Down the road lay the burned-out carcass of a Datsun sedan in which a Lebanese Christian died. He and a Syrian civilian were the only fatalities in last Saturday's shooting between the rebels and Arafat loyalists.
"Arafat wants to make peace. We want to fight," he said, stressing that he was not opposed to peace, in general at least, but to an Israeli- and American-imposed peace that allowed Israel to "get rid of our people, but keep our land."
He made it clear that he wanted new leadership, although, he insisted, "Arafat must be forced out only by democratic means." Angered, as are many Arafat loyalists, by their leader's penchant for authoritarian decision-making without bothering to consult Fatah or PLO bodies, Abu Majdi said, "His very nature makes it impossible to honor" the 1980 hard-line Fatah program, which the rebels insist should be the guerrillas' basic platform.
That program, adopted over Arafat's heated objections, called for armed struggle, an independent Palestinian state on Palestinian soil, but without negotiations with--or recognition of--Israel. Its appareent impracticality could explain why Arafat never took the program seriously.
"We are all convinced," Abu Majdi said, "that Arafat will never accept any effective control, and even if he accepted our demands, we wouldn't trust him because we know how he operates."
Col. Abu Musa, the handsome, 56-year-old leader of the mutiny, stopped short when asked if he favored Arafat's ouster. Abu Musa, considered a war hero in the fighting last year, said, "I do not want to say that."
Instead, he reiterated charges that Arafat was willing to renounce the principle of armed struggle that was Fatah's keystone dogma when the movement was founded in 1965. He also demanded the dismissal of "leaders responsible for the retreat from south Lebanon and other places last year."
It was Arafat's reluctance to analyze last year's fighting--his repeated trumpeting that the battle of Beirut was a glorious PLO victory--and his attempts to name discredited military men to major commands that provided the pretext for the mutiny.
Although some dissidents conceded that they informed the Syrians of their plans before starting the rebellion, all key rebels--and many seemingly impartial observers within the PLO--seem convinced that Arafat has overestimated the importance of that backing, and that he has yet to understand fully how deeply felt is the internal demand from rank-and-file Fatah members for putting the house in order.
The civilian adviser, for example, said, "We are very well-entrenched inside the military of Fatah," which accounts for about 80 percent of overall guerrilla strength.
"We are on the ground," Abu Majdi said more simply, indicating that Arafat had few, if any, means of dislodging the rebels. As a result, the civilian adviser said, "When we stymied him in the Bekaa, Arafat rallied support among the Arabs--Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the Arab League--or internationally, from Romania, and especially from the Soviet Union."
But the rebels maintained that the support Arafat claims is less than one-sidedly in his favor and that so far Syria has not intervened, in itself a plus for their cause.
Moreover, with each passing day, the rebels claim to be gathering more strength in garrisons not just limited to around this town--just south of the Beirut-Damascus highway and only three miles from the Israeli front lines--or around Baalbek. "We have clandestine forces" inside Tripoli, the northern Lebanese port city supposedly totally in Arafat's camp, Abu Majdi said.
Just how strong the rebellion is is hard to ascertain. Arafat tried and failed to smash the dissidents militarily, Abu Musa said. Arafat's men refused to carry out his orders, the colonel added.
"Not all the nominally Arafat men are really for him," the colonel continued. "Every day many Arafat officers come to us, but we tell them, 'Stay where you are and we will call you when you are needed.' "
Indeed, the rebels claim to be in no hurry. One explained, "This is not a coup, but a corrective movement. We have gained a great deal from the internal Fatah mediation, especially among younger officers and middle-level cadres."
But the rebels are perhaps less impervious to pressure from everyday Palestinians and foreign powers than they let on. Behind the bluff military bravado, the conviction that they have outsmarted one of the Middle East's recognized master tacticians at his own game, lies the still unspoken knowledge that many who applaud the dissidents believe the time is fast approaching for compromise--or irreversible splits.
Some optimists hope a meeting of the 72-member Fatah Revolutionary Council within a few days could pave the way for a solution allowing a full-fledged Fatah conference to be held in the fall. That could save face all around, especially if Arafat were to forswear his alleged intention of kicking the major rebel leaders out of Fatah.
"We know we cannot purge all the bad elements--much less Arafat himself," one man said, "but getting rid of even 20 percent of the bad guys would be a start in the right direction."