Pakistan is not Egypt (and it hasn’t had a coup)

June 20, 2012

One of the risks of the deteriorating situation inside Pakistan and its worsening relations with the outside world is the temptation to box it into a manageable category to make it less bewildering. Thus this week,  the disqualification of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani by the Supreme Court was widely described as a “judicial coup” - an evocation of the many military interventions in Pakistan since its creation in 1947 – and from there it became easy to compare it to the reassertion of military power in Egypt .  By then we were but a hop, skip and a jump away from Pakistan’s definition as a failed state.

But Pakistan is not a failed state. It is perhaps better described, as columnist Doctor Mohammad Taqi said on Twitter, by what in medicine would be considered ”a long term acute patient…like a successful failed state”. The disqualification of the prime minister will not lead to the collapse of the democratic system in Pakistan – rather the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will choose a new prime minister and limp on to elections due by early next year.

And Pakistan is not Egypt. Unlike Egypt, Pakistan’s civilian politicians have had years of experience of trying to assert themselves over the powerful military.  Squabbling between politicians created the space for repeated overthrows of civilian governments in the past, culminating most recently in a military coup in 1999.  They have learned from their mistakes. Former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif was himself overthrown in that 1999 coup; he has recently become one of the country’s most outspoken critics of the army and would be wary of derailing the democratic process to the extent that it would open the door for a military takeover. Meanwhile, the Pakistan Army itself has shown no inclination to run the country, though it continues to dominate foreign and security policy.

So be wary of labels, and easy categories.  Or as Jay Ulfelder wrote about Egypt, “the labels we choose should reflect our thinking about the nature of the process involved and the historical cases to which we might usefully compare it. I don’t think we can figure out what to call…events (in Egypt) without first choosing a conceptual framework to characterize the larger change process in which those events are embedded.”

How then are we to describe what is happening in Pakistan? In 2007, long before the Arab Spring, a popular movement forced then Pakistan ruler Pervez Musharraf to restore sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.  The judiciary has since then been taking an increasingly independent line. It has its battles with the PPP (whose founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was sentenced to death by a court) and many have accused it of applying justice selectively to target the ruling party.  Rightly or wrongly, its decision to disqualify Gilani was widely seen as a response to corruption allegations made against the Chief Justice’s son (an earlier ruling in April – before those allegations emerged - convicted Gilani of contempt of court but left it to parliament to decide his fate.)

But- and this is crucial – the Supreme Court has also been challenging the army by demanding investigations into the many missing persons who have disappeared over the years into suspected military custody.  What we are seeing in Pakistan today is not the judiciary siding with the military to do its bidding against a civilian government, but rather the emergence of   a new power centre which is messy, unsatisfactory, and to many Pakistanis, not far enough above the political fray, but nonetheless far more independent than it was a decade ago.

The popular fight over the judiciary in 2007 eventually forced Musharraf to step down and allowed the PPP to take power in democratic elections.  Before his disqualification, Gilani had become the longest-serving elected prime minister in Pakistan’s history.  The coalition government he led has survived through a perfect storm of global economic recession, disastrous floods, Islamist bombings and the faltering U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, all compounded by the PPP’s own deficiencies in governance and corruption. 

President Asif Ali Zardari, co-leader of the PPP and widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, has surprised everyone in his capacity to not only survive but outfox the army in the perennial battle for power in Pakistan.  Accusations of treason against his ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, in the so-called Memogate scandal were fought to a stalemate earlier this year. The government has begun still-fragile peace talks with India, opening up trade and undercutting the need for a security state which since Pakistan’s inception in 1947 has allowed (some say required) the military to predominate. And perhaps most importantly, it has begun to devolve power to the provinces in a direct challenge to the centralising authority of  the military.  Whatever happens in Pakistan in future, that Pakistani version of perestroika will not be forgotten. And for the first time in Pakistan’s history, the idea of democratic rule also appears to have some genuine support in the United States.

Far from facing a coup, the choice before the PPP now is whether after naming a new prime minister it should hang on until elections in February, or hold early polls in the hope of using the “martyr card” to convince voters that it had been unfairly targetted by the Supreme Court.  Elections next year would give it time to stabilise the economy  – requiring an end to the standoff with the United States and an agreement with the International Monetary Fund – and to ease the energy crisis which, at a time of intense protests over load-shedding, is currently Pakistan’s biggest problem. Early polls would have the advantage of  putting a caretaker government in place which could take responsibility for repairing ties with the United States in a politically unpopular deal which nobody in Pakistan wants to own. So far Zardari has said he will wait for elections next year. Whatever the outcome, compared to previous civilian administrations in Pakistan, the current government is facing the luxury of choice.

That is not to suggest all is well in Pakistan.  Apart from the load-shedding, the economic crisis, the government/judiciary row, the Islamist militancy and the standoff with the United States, Pakistan also faces a growing challenge to the writ of state – between a separatist rebellion in Balochistan province and war in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan. It has an increasingly poor record on human rights and protection of minorities. Critics of the army say the space for civil society is shrinking rather than growing – for them the so-called Deep State is reasserting itself by other means, including through the Difa-e-Pakistan Islamist alliance.

It is a mess, and an unpredictable mess at that. But there is a process underway, of democratisation and of a distribution of power across different stakeholders (whether these be the army, the government, the opposition, the judiciary or the multiple non-state actors.)  Labelling Pakistan as a country still vulnerable to a coup, albeit a judicial one, ignores that diffusion of power. And comparing it to Egypt, which has only very recently tried to escape from authoritarian rule,  is to set Pakistan back at least 20 years – if indeed the comparison of two such different countries was ever valid.

This point is about more than mere pedantry. A misdiagnosis would be dangerous at a time when impatience is running so high – particularly in the United States – that some would rather write Pakistan off altogether.  To extend the metaphor, the potential cure from that misdiagnosis could be akin to chopping off a patient’s legs to treat a virus.  The process of change in Pakistan is as yet imperfectly understood and often comes down to guesswork. But Pakistan is not Egypt, and it has not just had a coup.

(Reuters file photo of a demonstration in April after Gilani’s contempt of court conviction.)

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