RAMALLAH, West Bank – 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 West Bank'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.
Complaints of heavy-handedness come at a time of paralysis on all fronts. Abbas' strategy of setting up a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel has hit a dead end, while the bitter rivalry between Fatah and the Islamic militant group Hamas continues to fester.
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.
Abbas defenders say Israel and Hamas are largely to blame for the gridlock: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adopted harder negotiating positions than his predecessors, while Hamas seized Gaza in 2007 and set up a mini-state there.
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 West Bank 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.
One recent controversy centered on the largest Palestinian union, which represents about 40,000 employees of the Palestinian Authority.
Last month, Abbas outlawed the union and had two top officials jailed for a week. The decision followed strikes by the union demanding more benefits.
Critics said Abbas and Fatah had used the union in the past as a tool against rivals. They said Abbas went after the union last month because it was causing problems for his hand-picked prime minister, Rami Hamdallah.
Bassam Zakarneh, one of the union leaders who was briefly jailed by Abbas, said the union is being targeted because "they don't want anyone to stand up to the government."
Abbas aide Nimer Hamad said the union was never registered and that strikes "caused huge damage to the interests of the people."
Meanwhile, others defending the union also got in trouble.
Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed, who criticized the decision to ban the union, found himself accused by Hamdallah of nepotism for pushing his sister-in-law for the post of education minister — a rare "outing" of one member of the ruling elite by another.
The incident played out on a talk show earlier this month on government-run Palestine TV. Asked about his sister-in-law, al-Ahmed denied he used his influence to get her the Cabinet job. Hamdallah called the show, contradicting al-Ahmed's version on the air.
The episode confirmed a perception — held by more than 80 percent of Palestinians, according to last week's poll — that Palestinian Authority institutions are tainted by corruption, with nepotism cited as a major problem.
Some speculated the showdown over the union could also be linked to internal power struggles in Fatah ahead of a party convention next month.
Regardless of intentions, the crackdown on the union is unpopular, with two-thirds of the public opposed, said pollster Khalil Shikaki.
Abbas' approval rating has dropped to 35 percent, from 50 percent last summer. "There is no doubt that the crackdown on freedoms and liberties, particularly unions, is certainly one of those factors that are pushing in that direction," said Shikaki, who conducted last week's poll.
Abbas also continues to engage in battles with perceived foes, even though they have not declared themselves as challengers.
Earlier this year, he began purging supporters of former Gaza strongman Dahlan from the ranks of Fatah. He has warned others they would be expelled if they maintain ties with Dahlan, some in Fatah said.
Beyond curbs on expression in the self-rule areas, Palestinians face multiple restrictions — including those on movement imposed by Israel, which retains overall control in the West Bank.
In this environment, many use social media as an outlet for their views, but that's also fraught with risk.
Ahmed Zaki, the news director of Palestine TV, said he was recently demoted after a Facebook post in which he criticized the choice of a talk show guest on his station — an Egyptian commentator who supported Israeli attacks against Hamas targets in Gaza.
After that post, Zaki said he received a call from Abbas' office and was told he would no longer serve in his job, though he remains on the station's payroll.
Tami Rafidi, a 35-year-old Fatah activist in Ramallah, said she has been admonished for Facebook posts critical of Abbas and told by party members and security officials to tone down her comments. She said she has not been threatened because of her role in Fatah.
"But I am aware of others who were pressured or threatened to stop criticism," she said. "The margin of freedom in the social media is narrow in the Palestinian territories."