Army, Allah and America: on Pakistani pitfalls and the future of Egypt

January 30, 2011

egyptAll countries are unique and comparing two of the world’s most populous Muslim countries, Egypt and Pakistan, is as risky as comparing Britain to France at the time of the French Revolution. But many of the challenges likely to confront Egypt as it emerges from the mass protests against the 30-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak are similar to those Pakistan has faced in the past, and provide at least a guide on what questions need to be addressed.  In Pakistan, they are often summarised as the three A’s — Army, Allah and America.

Both have powerful armies which are seen as the backbone of the country; both have to work out how to accommodate political Islam with democracy, both are allies of America, yet with people who resent American power in propping up unpopular elites.

As my Reuters colleague Alastair Lyon writes,  Egypt’s sprawling armed forces — the world’s 10th biggest and more than 468,000-strong — have been at the heart of power since army officers staged the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy. Mubarak’s announcement that he was naming his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice-president was seen as a move towards an eventual, military-approved handover of power.  And Egyptian protesters have sometimes tried to see the army as their ally — an institution that puts country first before personal gain.

Yet armies, as Pakistan has discovered over its many years of on-again off-again military rule, are not designed for democracy. They are designed to be efficient, and with that comes the hierarchy and obedience to authority that would seem alien to many of those out on the streets of Cairo.

In his book about the Pakistan Army, defence expert Brian Cloughley writes about how the British general, the Duke of Wellington, responded to democracy in his first cabinet meeting as prime minister: ”An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.” The story is told as part of an argument about why the Pakistan Army has never been particularly successful at running the country.

“All Pakistan’s army coups have been bloodless, successful and popular – but popular only for a while,” he writes. “The trouble is that military people are usually quite good at running large organisations, even civilian ones, but generally fail to understand politics and government, and the give-and-take so necessary in that esoteric world.”

It is a lesson that may yet need to be learned in Egypt.  As Amil Khan wrote from Islamabad in his Twitter feed,  “Love the way Pakistani twitterers puzzled by Egyptians’ trust in army. Guys, you’re kinda similar, but kinda different.”

Then there is political Islam. Both Pakistan and Egypt have powerful religious parties which have their roots in Islamist movements born out of Muslim resentment against British colonial rule.  In Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami, founded in then British India, has, along with other religious parties played a disproportionately significant role in setting the agenda which goes well beyond their weak showing at the ballot box.  It has reached the point where no government — either civilian or military — has dared challenge them on issues of faith.  When Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, was shot dead by his own security guard earlier this month over his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws,  his killer was celebrated as a hero.  Few dared speak out and most of Taseer’s colleagues in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) were quick to insist there would no changes to the laws.

Many attribute the grip of religious parties on Pakistani society to the use of Islam as a means of uniting the country’s different ethnic groups, to past support by its military for mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and then the Indians in Kashmir, and to the Islamicisation policies of General Zia-ul-Haq. But over the years every politician has made use of the religious parties to bolster their support, including PPP founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who declared the minority Ahmadi sect as non-Muslims in 1974, and was later deposed and hanged by Zia in 1979.

In particular, argues Manan Ahmed in this essay titled “Pakistan’s crisis can’t simply be explained by religion”, Pakistan politicised reverence for the Prophet Mohammed.  “This emergence of the Prophet as a centralising and orienting raison d’etre for Pakistan, however, was not merely an organic outgrowth of a religiously inclined society, it was a deliberate state policy, aided by Islamist parties, to mould public faith. The blasphemy riots of the 1950s, when the Ahmadi sect was violently resisted by the Jama’at-i Islami, had taught one clear lesson to the religious right: the veneration of Muhammad was great political theatre with infinite malleability for nearly every segment of the Pakistani population.”

Unlike Pakistan, Egypt has more ethnic homogeneity and, with its large Coptic population, greater religious diversity so – on paper at least – political Islam would be less obvious as a unifying force. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded like the Jamaat-e-Islami in opposition to British rule, has taken a low profile in the Egyptian protests, though as former Reuters bureau chief in Cairo Jonathan Wright argues in his blog, this may be a deliberately calibrated stance.

“The Brotherhood, like Islamist groups in many Arab countries, has cold feet about governing. It does not feel it is ready. This is reflected in its official strategy of concentrating on a political reform agenda which it shares with many other groups – free and fair elections, rule of law, a new constitution with checks and balances and so on. What the Brotherhood wants most in the short term is the freedom to organize and promote its ideas in a democratic environment, regardless of who is in government. The Brotherhood believes that, given freedom and time, it can win over Egyptians to its long-term agenda.”

The Pew Global Attitudes Survey released in December also suggested that Egyptians might actually be more in favour of Islam playing a role in society than Pakistanis.  Ninety-five percent of Egyptians questions said it was good for Islam to play a large role in politics, compared to 88 percent of Pakistanis. “At least three-quarters of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan say they would favor making each of the following the law in their countries: stoning people who commit adultery, whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery and the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion,” it said.

Finally there is America, which has propped up military rulers in both countries and used generous quantities of American aid to buy support first against communism and then against militant Islam.  In Pakistan, the United States is already struggling to foster civilian, democratic rule at a time when it is deeply distrusted.  It is likely to face similar challenges in Egypt if it chooses, and manages, to go down that route.

Moreover, while the United States was able to underpin the growth of stable, secular democracies in Europe following World War Two with huge amounts of trade and aid, the world nowadays is still recovering from financial crisis.  And as Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper noted, the world’s Muslim populations face faster-than-average growth rates at a time of increasing global competition for resources.  At least some of the unrest in the Middle East, especially in Tunisia, was fuelled by anger over rising food prices. It is not an easy time for any country to win over people looking for an end to poverty and unemployment.

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