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University President Serves Briefly as Prime Minister

RAMALLAH- Can an academic administrator take on the job of prime minister? Palestine is finding out.

Already the proposition looks shaky, as a university president who has been on the job here for a couple of weeks has submitted his resignation, which was ultimately accepted. To a certain degree though, the reasons for the short stint appear to have as much to do with the complexities of Palestinian politics as they do with the prime minister’s experience.

A British-educated English professor, Rami Hamdallah has been dean of the An-Najah University, the largest university in Palestine, in the West Bank for the last 15 years. He had rejected many previous offers to leave the presidency of the university, but on June 6 he accepted an offer to become prime minister and help form a new government. He replaced Salam Fayyad, who resigned in mid-April. At the university, some are cheering him on in his new role and some say it was not a wise move or a proper appointment.

The new prime minister has no prior political or government experience. He was expected to lead a temporary, technocratic government for several months as President Mahmoud Abbas tries to reconcile differences between his own Fatah Party and the Hamas faction in the hope of scheduling overdue elections. There has been a deep rift between the two main Palestinian factions since 2007, when Hamas set up a rival government in Gaza after ousting Fatah.

Hamdallah, 54 years old, has a Ph.D. in applied linguistics from Britain’s Lancaster University. He has held a series of prominent roles in university associations, serving, for example, on the executive committee of the Federation of the Universities of the Islamic world.  He also served as the secretary general of the Palestinian central elections commission since 2002. When he was appointed, Hamdallah did not resign as president of the university.

The new appointment made the front pages of Palestinian and international newspapers, with even the Israeli media showing great interest in the idea that the new government is led by an academic who is well known by the Palestinian youth.

“I do not think there is a problem in giving this important governmental position to a senior academic,” says a journalist and political analyst, Hassan Abdullah. He adds that “Hamdallah has a good reputation, rich and professional experience and well known leadership skills.” According to Abdullah, Hamdallah played a key role in improving An-Najah University.  He built useful partnerships with regional and international organizations and worked hard, Abdullah says.

But leading a government is different than leading a university.  “Professional advisers must be assigned to help him carry out his duties,”  says Abdullah, who believes in the importance of  mixing government experience with academic experience to help the government formulate strong policies.

The editor in chief of Palestinian Ma’an News Agency, Nasser Laham praises the selection of Hamdallah to this new position. “He is not a military officer to be afraid of him or greedy for a position. He is a civilian academic who believes in democracy,” Laham wrote earlier this month. Under Hamdallah’s leadership, Laham wrote, the university has opened 20 scientific colleges that offer bachelor’s degrees in 66 disciplines, three master’s-degree programs, a chemistry Ph.D. program, as well as 21 specialized two-year programs.

Although Hamdallah is widely respected, there are many who believe that new appointment was not proper.

“We do not have a specific criteria for appointments in the universities as well as in the rest of government positions,” a university professor who requested anonymity told Al-Fanar.

Another lecturer in An-Najah University, who also requested anonymity, says that Hamdallah’s administrative experience is bigger than his academic experience which helped him to lead the university in very difficult circumstances.

The reason for appointing Hamdallah was not so clear says Ibrahim Enairat, a researcher at the Ministry of Planning. He suggested the appointment may have come out of President Abbas’s interest in education.

Yet, improving education just because Hamdallah was appointed isn’t guaranteed, sources said. “Nothing will change. . .We are still living under an Israeli occupation that controls our fate, and without freedom there is no success on the ground,” said an An-Najah University lecturer.

Mohammed Jamal, a young activist and  graduate of An-Najah University, says he was delighted by the new appointment: “All students know him and know his interest and commitment to the university and to students.” To express his pride in Hamdallah’s appointment, Jamal uploaded a photo on his Facebook page of himself with Hamdallah. Now with Hamdallah resigns, it is not clear if Jamal will change his profile picture again or not.

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