Mahmoud Abbas at the U.N. General Assembly last fall.(Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

The day after Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that elections for the president and legislative council of the Palestinian Authority would be held by September. Forty-eight hours later, he asked for the resignation of the current Cabinet. “The new government should concentrate its efforts on mobilizing its energies to prepare national institutions for the establishment of an independent state of Palestine before the deadline of next September,” Abbas said.

The Palestinian leader has just seven months to reach a working relationship with Hamas, which controls Gaza and which rejects the PA government, or the elections cannot be held in Gaza. Early indications are not promising. Hamas spokesmen flatly rejected the idea of rapprochement, despite an offer from Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Sha’ath to travel there and agree to “any conditions” the group might demand. “I don’t know if there will be an independent state around September and if we will see another president in the coming months or even after September,” Nabil Amr, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister and ambassador to Cairo and Moscow, told me. A confidant of both Yasser Arafat and Abbas, Amr has become a gadfly critic of the leaders he once advised.

While Abbas’ commitment to the September deadline could be dismissed as Palestinian rhetoric in the style of Yasser Arafat’s pledge to declare an independent state in September 2000, this time the Palestinian leadership may have no choice, given the wave of popular revolts rolling across the Arab world and the Palestinians’ own internal problems. A week after the fall of the Tunisian government in January, Al Jazeera began publishing the “Palestine Papers”—a WikiLeaks-style trove of documents detailing confidential peace talks between Palestinian negotiators and Israel that portrayed the Palestinian team as weak and desperate. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat initially denounced the documents as forgeries, but he was later forced to confirm their authenticity and resigned. Meanwhile, attention shifted to events in Egypt, where mass demonstrations led to Mubarak’s resignation on February 11.

The loss of Erekat, a key confidante, was a serious problem for Abbas. Even worse was the fall of Mubarak, a stout supporter of Fatah and opponent of Hamas. “The Palestinian leaders don’t have a good response to what is happening,” says analyst Hani al-Masri at the Palestine Media, Research and Studies Centre. “They are afraid because they lost their big friend and ally.” Al-Masri adds that the only way to achieve the unity with Hamas necessary to conduct elections and a breakthrough in the peace talks that will bring about independence by the September deadline is for the Palestinian leaders to change both their tactics and leadership. “Abu Mazen”—as Abbas is known—“must say seriously that he is not running in the next election,” says al-Masri. “We must prepare ourselves for the future.”

Hafez Barghouti, editor of the semi-official Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida and a veteran Fatah insider, says the party is failing to prepare for the inevitable generational handover of power. “Abu Mazen is old and he doesn’t want to be like the Arab leaders, to be fired by the people,” says Barghouti. “But I don’t know who will be the new leader. From Fatah I don’t see anybody. I cannot see a good leader or a popular leader now from Fatah. Fatah till now is sleeping.”

Hatem Abdel Kader, a former Palestinian minister for Jerusalem and a prominent leader of the young guard with close connections to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah, echoes Amr’s call for Fatah to get its act together while still maintaining his support for Abbas.

“Fatah is the movement of our people, Fatah is the leader of our national project, and only Fatah can achieve our national project—but we need to clean up our home,” says Abdel Kader. “Right now we haven’t any choice, only Abu Mazen. After Abu Mazen, I don’t know.”

The absence of any natural successor to Abbas either now or in the future is likely to spell trouble for Fatah, for the Palestinian national movement, and for Israelis hoping for a peace partner. Observers agree that while Palestinian Prime Minster Salam Fayyad has built enormous political capital with his “Homestretch to Freedom” plan for Palestinian statehood, his closeness to the Americans makes him an object of suspicion, and there is no chance he can win an election as an independent.

“Salam Fayyad is a good man, but he is not from Fatah,” says pollster Nabil Kukali, director-general of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion in Beit Sahour. “If Fatah will support Fayyad I’m sure he will win the elections. But if Fatah have their own candidate it will be very difficult for Fayyad.”

Several members of the Palestinian Central Committee who were elected in 2009 appear to have dropped out of contention for a leadership role. Saeb Erekat’s chances were probably destroyed by the Palestine Papers leaks. Tawfik Tirawi, a former head of Palestinian General Intelligence, prefers to play a backroom role as chief security adviser to Abbas. Jibril Rajoub, former head of Preventive Security in the West Bank, is reveling in his new job as head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee and Football Association and refuses to discuss anything except soccer and athletics.

Polls suggest that the potential candidate likely to win the largest majority in a post-Abbas presidential election is Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life terms in an Israeli jail for his part in launching terror attacks against Israelis during the intifada. While Fatah leaders respect Barghouti, they rule out his candidacy as impractical.

“Marwan Barghouti could be an excellent candidate, but he is in an Israeli prison,” says Hanna Siniora, a veteran Fatah leader in Jerusalem. Amr concurs: “I like him and he’s my friend, but who will nominate a president in prison? It will be a joke.”

Recent events also suggest that Abbas, far from encouraging a smooth leadership transition, is working hard to deter would-be successors from staking a claim to the presidency. Until November, one obvious front-runner was Mohammed Dahlan, 49, the feared former commander of Palestinian Preventive Security in Gaza. Dahlan’s U.S.-trained and -equipped forces were roundly defeated by the Hamas Executive Force and expelled from Gaza in 2007. Some 400 Fatah fighters and activists were killed in that battle. But Dahlan bounced back from that humiliation to secure a seat on the Central Committee in 2009. Dahlan had established close ties with U.S. and British intelligence during his tenure as Gaza security chief and amassed a sizable personal fortune, with which he began to build a power base in the West Bank.

But last fall, Dahlan was suddenly stripped of his official duties and accused of financial and other misdeeds after he criticized the business dealings of the president’s family. An unprecedented attack on Dahlan published by the PLO’s official WAFA news agency announced a full-scale investigation into Dahlan’s alleged corruption and linked him to a plot to overthrow Abbas also involving Nasser al-Kidwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew and a former foreign minister and PLO representative to the United Nations—and another possible successor to Abbas.

Indeed, al-Kidwa’s name comes up frequently in conversations with senior Fatah officials about successors. Now 57, al-Kidwa was talent-spotted in his teens by his uncle and charged with turning the General Union of Palestinian Students into an international force to help Fatah consolidate its control of the PLO while also serving as a nursery for future Palestinian leaders.

In the modest basement office he now occupies as the head of the Yasser Arafat Foundation, al-Kidwa is clearly caught between a desire to continue his uncle’s legacy, his frustration at the current leadership’s lack of progress in the peace process, and his shock at the public accusation that he was plotting with Dahlan to overthrow Abbas.

Al-Kidwa bears an uncanny resemblance to his late uncle—he favors business suits over military fatigues—but Fatah kingmakers are divided as to whether he has what it takes to fill Arafat’s shoes. His supporters cite his rich diplomatic experience, impressive intellect, and his freedom from the taint of corruption that swirls around many other Fatah officials. Detractors say he is largely untried on the domestic scene and his profile since returning from diplomatic service has been too low to attract much following among the 400,000 registered members of Fatah.

One Israeli diplomat who frequently locked horns with al-Kidwa at the United Nations said he was a force to be reckoned with. “He is very intelligent, extremely slippery, and he can be unnecessarily aggressive,” said the Israeli. Many Palestinians may feel that is exactly the kind of person they could use right now at the helm of their drifting ship.

Al-Kidwa says the conspiracy allegations published by the official news agency are symptomatic of a leadership that has lost touch with its own people and frozen democratic institutions like the legislative council.

“We are seeing a decrease in the amount of tolerance of other opinions, of opposition, of dissent,” says al-Kidwa. “There is an absence of democratic check and balance and a muting of opposition generally, especially after the military coup d’etat in Gaza. This led to more accumulation, more centralization of power. Part of this is not our making. Part of this is a result of the Hamas military coup in Gaza, the situation here, the lack of progress in the peace process. But irrespective of whose fault this might be, the results are not nice.”

He denounces the Hamas regime in Gaza as “authoritarian and merciless” but says the priority must be a power-sharing agreement that will allow Hamas to fully participate in the PLO and the Palestinian Authority without needing to join a government whose peaceful program they would be unable to endorse. He is confident that Hamas can be persuaded to drop its demands for Israel’s destruction.

“They have a really very serious problem,” al-Kidwa says of Hamas. “They don’t have answers either for the Palestinian people or for themselves.”

While he praises Salam Fayyad as “a serious man” and lauds his achievements in recent years, he says the idea that building institutions can bring a Palestinian state into existence is “deeply flawed” in the absence of a coherent political program, both at home and internationally. He says there should be much more pressure on the Israelis from the United Nations and other international institutions to produce an agreement, since direct negotiations have clearly failed.

Evidently, he has thought long and hard about the new policies that could be pursued under a new leader. Will he run in the planned election, if it happens? “I’m not sure, to tell you the truth,” al-Kidwa replies. “There is total confusion when it comes to whatever might happen next.”

Matthew Kalman is a foreign correspondent and filmmaker based in Jerusalem.