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.


@G Prasad

I have looked at the map in Shabir chaudry blog and also read his rhetoic: Can one take this guy seriously?

I was not aware that Kashmiris living in the so called Azad Kashmir or the Inian occupied terrotory could travel on some sort of a Kashmiri document. I was also not aware that Azad Kashmir leaders can just cross over to the other side of Kashmir without any docmets? Is he not aware that most of the so called Pakistanis living in the UK are of Kashmiri origin, the refugees from Kashmr who were granted Pakistani Passports at their requests enabling them to travel to the UK after the indian take over of their country? Do you consider this guy’s writing should be taken seiously?

Does he mean that the Kashmir divide does not apply to kashmiris?

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Rex Minor,

Again, I don’t know if you deliberately fail to understand a simple point.

Is either Azad Kashmir or Gilgit-Baltistan an independent country? No.

Who occupies Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan? Pakistan.

If the people of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan are to be allowed to decide their future, who stands in the way? Pakistan.

So, why do you focus your attention only on Indian-held Kashmir? Can you also direct a question at Pakistan?

Even-handedness and lack of double-standards are all that are being asked for.

Or is the distinction between “believers” and “non-believers” the crucial one?

> Sorry you have shown your biased part too often!

The biases of every poster here are open to all to see, my friend! Throwing stones from inside a glass house isn’t advisable.

Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive

Rex Minor said:

> perhaps one of these days,I may call on you. Australia is not foreign for me nor are the outskirts of sydney.

That’s good. Perhaps many of these misunderstandings in writing can be sorted out by talking face-to-face.

Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive

@”Is he not aware that most of the so called Pakistanis living in the UK are of Kashmiri origin, the refugees from Kashmr who were granted Pakistani Passports at their requests enabling them to travel to the UK after the indian take over of their country? Do you consider this guy’s writing should be taken seiously?”
Posted by pakistan

How many times will you keep twisting facts to support your ill-informed arguments?

FYI, more than half of the Pakistani population in Britain is from Mirpur (in Pakistan occupied Kashmir). These so-called Kasmiris began emigrating from Pakistan after the completion of Mangla Dam in Mirpur in the late 1950s. The completion of the dam led to the destruction of hundreds of villages and stimulated a large wave of migration. Many of Mirpur’s inhabitants left for Britain & they were given legal and financial assistance by the British contractor which had built the dam. I say “so-called Kashmiris” because most ethnic Kashmiris do not consider Mirpuri people to be Kashmiris as Mirpur is a former Punjabi District with an ethnic Punjabi population that had no geographic or historic link to Kashmir until the treaty of Amritsar in 1846.

Posted by Mortal1 | Report as abusive


Now the zombies are out. We are apparently not talking about 1947 Kashmir, but 1847 Kashmir! Poor Kashmiris, the day for their freedom is not yet there. The Kashmiris who were compelled to save their lives and took refuge in other parts of the world, are no longer regarded Kashmiris by the zombies. Too bad for letting the construction of Mangla Dam and letting their old town go to sleep under water. Mirpur is after all called a Little Britain, and most of the Mirpuris hold dual nationalities, therefore technicaly speaking should’nt their territory be claimed back by the Brits.
not a bad solution, this could enable the kashmiris to get themselves rid of Indian military. This is a novel approach, not different from the novel approach of the Egyptians approach. We are facing turbulance times.

We just have to wait. 2011 is the year for the suppressed muslims to gain their independence and I am prepared to place my bet on this! There is a saying among Arabs that those who believe in God and have been told to pray five times a day, are also promised that GOD will listen to their prayers and their enemy would meet its destruction.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

@”UmairPK, Now the zombies are out. We are apparently not talking about 1947 Kashmir, but 1847 Kashmir! Poor Kashmiris, the day for their freedom is not yet there ” Posted by pakistan

If you have a problem with what I said, be man enough to address it directly to me rather than to Umair, like a gossipy old woman (which I think you actually are).
You commented that most Kashmiris from Pakistan moved to the UK after “India took over their land” & I refuted your lie with the fact that India had nothing to do with and that their migration was due to the building of Mangla dam. The origin of mirpuris was a side lesson for you because (factual) knowledge is something which you seem to be desperately in need of.

Posted by Mortal1 | Report as abusive

I’m actually quite relieved now, because I was beginning to think there was something wrong in my arguments, and that was why they were constantly failing to convince. When even a Kashmiri Muslim like Shabir Choudhry is not to be taken seriously (because he says things on his blog that our friend Rex doesn’t agree with), then of course none of us can hope to be called anything other than zombies. The only acceptable arguments are those that he already agrees with! Facts that disagree with his pre-existing opinions are to be simply discarded.

Maybe a better Latin name for Rex Minor would be Mens Claustra (closed mind)…

Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive

Pakistan: “You have a good read of history and have the ability to learn to read the future history(tobe written), which some call it vision. When you are successful, then tell us what the future actions of the antagonists in the Asian subcontinent are going to be?”

People will always be at odds with each other. If it is not this issue, it will be that issue. Most national borders today were defined by colonial regimes of the past. They have created only more problems than any solutions. One thing to look at in the future would be to redefine these borders according to our times and circumstances. This means, a couple of generations later, they will have to be redefined again. It is not worth killing others for the sake of artificial boundaries. The course should be to make artificial borders less significant and allow people to migrate and move around at will based on their needs. Policing would only be required to track criminals and confine them. When great empires existed in the sub-continent and elsewhere in the past, people could move in and out of the borders without any issues. There were no passports, visas and all that kind of nonsense. Empires fought each other for territorial claims, but they left the people out of them. And such claims were exclusively for collecting taxes and getting soldiers for their armies.

In fact, inside a big country like India, there are states with borders. But they are not separate countries. People can move around anywhere based on their needs. They can apply to any college across the whole union and travel anywhere they like. They do not need passports or visas to go across the state borders. Criminals are still there and there is a police system to take care of them. So why not extend this further? Why do countries have to exist with rigidly drawn boundaries, soldiers to protect them, flags to salute, wage wars to defend them and divide people from the same family on either side? Look at North and South Korea? For whose benefit are these entities created? Kim Jong? or the people? Why are 500000 soldiers staring at each other at the Korean border that divides the same people?

You will realize that borders and nations were created for the benefit of a few – those who get to control others and resource movement. The Colonial empires fought each other everywhere to exploit wealth and resources. So they carved out borders to keep their competitors from stepping into their treasure troves. There is no need for those empires now. When resources are shared, artificially created borders lead to conflicts and loss of lives.

We all should work towards a modern world where borders are created merely for administrative purposes like states within a country. Immigration laws, passports, visas etc have been created by Western powers to keep others out of the wealth that they have managed to get ahead of others. The world is bursting at its seam with population that has been confined within artificially created borders for the benefit of a set of small minority groups. If such borders go away, militaries will disappear. Only local police and administrators will be needed. This is the eventual state the world needs to get to in the future. It will happen, much like the world becoming flat today through commercial needs. This planet has to become one nation before humans try their hands on other planets to populate.

In about 500 years, what I have said will become a necessity and reality. What we see today is only a temporary status of adjustment between humans in a rapidly changing environment.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

@”I’m actually quite relieved now, because I was beginning to think there was something wrong in my arguments, and that was why they were constantly failing to convince.” Posted by prasadgc

It’s quite clear that this character, deliberately goes out of his way to ignore the facts which refute his ill-informed preconceived notions & expose his “stomach based” nonsense. He simply does not have the moral courage & integrity to challenge his ignorance & bigotry.

Posted by Mortal1 | Report as abusive

Mortal1: “It’s quite clear that this character, deliberately goes out of his way to ignore the facts which refute his ill-informed preconceived notions & expose his “stomach based” nonsense. He simply does not have the moral courage & integrity to challenge his ignorance & bigotry”

This guy is not alone. Most Pakistanis seem to be of the same mentality – deny, negate anything that does not agree with their vision. Facts or not, what they believe is only correct. The rest can be recited into deaf ears. This is the sign of a society getting walls closed around it. Ignorance will at some point blind them and they will be pushed into doing the wrong thing because of their own built in paranoia and could justify their actions based on it.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

First off, let me correct the combination of Allah, America and Army. It is no longer being applied. Its now America, Arabs and Army.

While looking at Pakistan, we must remember that extremism, militancy and terrorism have both ideological and socio-economic dimensions. We fought the Afghan Jihad in the 80′s but there were no signs of extremism, militancy and terrorism in the 90′s. These emerged in the 2000′s after 9/11 episode.

There is a good deal of confusion about the existence of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It appears to have no physical existence as it has no headquarters in Pakistan. Nor has it branches or operational units any where in Pakistan. It is believed to be an umbrella of a movement of 10 or so militant groups operating for their own ideological affiliations. It does not seem to be affiliated with the Taliban of Afghanistan.

We cannot rule out the possibility of TTP label being used by criminal, ethnic and sectarian outfits.

Besides the ideological dimension, we must not forget that Pakistan is overwhelmingly poor. Its riches are confined to just 5% of its total population of 180 million. One-third of its population lives below the poverty line. Its lower classes, below and above the poverty line, are suffocating with inflation, unemployment, and poverty. These teeming millions are deprived of their basic socio-economic rights. They do not have access to clean drinking water, health, education, electricity, gas and other amenities.

With bulging gap between the haves and the havnots are destroying the Unity, Faith, and Discipline of the whole society.

What Pakistan needs today and, needs direly and urgently, is a complete overhaul of its economic, social, political, legal and judicial systems. We are still living with 200-year old British laws and a lot many conflicting laws conceived during the last sixty years of civilian-military rule.

Pakistan has tremendous potential for growth and prosperity. It has been blessed with every thing like the land, sea, rivers, four seasons, manpower, mineral resources, natural gas and petroleum, coal reserves, gold and silver mines and over seven million overseas Pakistanis sending home USD 10 billions and above every year.

Pakistan can progress and prosper ONLY with good governance in the country free from corruption and endowed with rule of law, rule of merit and rule of accountability. It should not take Pakistan more than 10 years to stabilize the economic, social, and political strata for a major take-off.

Mumtaz A. Piracha
Good Governance Forum
–Leading the Way to the Challenge of Change in Pakistan

Posted by goodgovernance | Report as abusive

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