Pakistan and Egypt: between pragmatism and dogma

November 22, 2012

Both Pakistan and Egypt had much to learn from each other this week.

On the foreign policy front, if Pakistan ever had aspirations to play the central role as the leader of Muslim unity, it had a salutary lesson in the way Egypt played its cards. Barely a week ago, Pakistan was looking forward to hosting Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, who was to be given the rare honour of addressing a joint session of parliament.

Mursi – the first president to emerge from the Muslim Brotherhood – was due in Islamabad for a summit meeting of the Developing-8 Islamic countries, which also includes Iran, Turkey and Nigeria among others.  The Jamaat-e-Islami (which sees itself as the ideological sibling of the Brotherhood – both were founded in the first half of the 20th century as anti-imperial Islamist  movements in British India and Egypt) proclaimed on its Twitter feed about how much it looked forward to greeting Mursi in Pakistan.

And then Mursi cancelled, his office saying he wanted to stay at home to monitor the ceasefire he had just brokered in Gaza.

These things happen; presidents and prime ministers change, or curtail, plans all the time to deal with unexpected crises. But something deeper was at play here in the way it illustrated the mismatch between Pakistan’s own aspirational approach to foreign affairs and the very real influence wielded by Egypt.

In the popular Pakistani imagination, Pakistan has bravely stood up to the “evil designs” of America and the war in neighbouring Afghanistan launched after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The narrative of Muslims as victims of the rest – one deliberately encouraged by al Qaeda and exacerbated by the responses of the Bush era – has taken deep root in Pakistan, so much so that many politicians now blame all the country’s problems on the United States.

Pakistan’s people were among the most vocal in expressing outrage at the killing in Gaza and at US backing for Israel – one of its television anchors had to write a piece explaining why the television channel was devoting more attention to the deaths of Pakistanis at home (the country is facing a wave of anti-Shia attacks) than those of Palestinians overseas.

Many Pakistanis continue to express outrage at the treatment of Muslims in the Kashmir Valley by Indian security forces without understanding that Pakistan too played its own role in suppressing Kashmiris by supporting militant groups whose role was to undercut the pro-independence aims of the original fighters.

And some of the same religious or militant groups which benefitted from the Islamicisation introduced by former dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq claimed during the Gaza offensive that Pakistan had always shown undying support for the Palestinians (who are, by the way, Christians as well as Muslims). They ignored then Brigadier Zia’s role in ruthlessly suppressing Palestinians in 1970 in what is known as Black September.

Pakistan has invented an unbroken line of Muslim unity which does not exist.

Mursi, in contrast, was willing to have Egypt work not only with the United States but also with Israel to broker a cease-fire in Gaza. In return, he raised his regional standing, earned U.S. gratitude and ensured a continuation of the $2 billion a year or so in U.S. aid that he needs revive the domestic economy. A ruthless pragmatism perhaps, and one that his critics say he is using to expand the power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and suppress dissent. But it is one Pakistan needs to study if it is to take care of itself rather than play what has been a self-harming role as torch-bearer for the Muslim ummah.

On the domestic front, Egyptians can learn much from Pakistan’s own experience of the struggle to establish democracy. Assuming Pakistani elections go ahead early next year as promised, the government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will become the first democratically elected administration in the country’s history to serve a full term and hand over to another democratically elected government.

Democracy has come at a high price. Populist politics play to the lowest common denominator, either in rampant anti-Americanism or in a willingness to appease sectarian, militant and religious groups in return for safety and political space.  No one should forget that the original decision in Pakistan to declare Ahmedis as non-Muslim – one that began the long and ghastly process of forcing the many different Muslim sects to define themselves as different from each other – happened in a democracy in 1974 under the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

And corruption, well hidden under periods of military rule, but there nonetheless among those who cream off the top of lucrative defence contracts, becomes an obsession in a democracy. In a developing democracy (and indeed often in mature democracies), corruption is almost always used to buy votes, with many of those involved helping themselves in the process. It becomes an easy stick with which to beat the government in a democratic dispensation; and often leaves ordinary people wondering how much they have gained from democracy.

And yet, for all its failings, Pakistan is limping towards the finish line. Few nowadays are expecting, or even wanting, a military coup.

In an ideal world, we would have the pragmatism of Mursi’s foreign policy married to the democratic struggle of Pakistan. (Or maybe not ideal, but one that more accurately corresponded to reality.)

Pakistan has no need to set itself up as the torch-bearer of the Islamic world.  It is an ordinary country with depressingly ordinary problems – population growth, poverty, climate change, governance, urbanisation and sectarian violence to name but a few (in some ways more similar to those of India.). Egypt, which has all those ordinary problems too, will flounder if it suppresses the aspirations of those who last year overthrew president Hosni Mubarak.

It is tempting to end with a cliche about learning from history, or not learning and repeating it. But actually that won’t do. Both countries are entering uncharted waters, one with more experience of democracy at home, one more pragmatic abroad.  The challenge for both Pakistan and Egypt will be to take the best of each. And for the west, especially the United States,  it can’t follow the old habits of being seduced by a more “convenient” foreign policy while ignoring developments on the domestic front.


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