In Pakistan, Egypt can find some pointers on democracy

July 7, 2013

In all the casting-about for comparisons to the confusing events in Egypt, three come easily: Pakistan, where coups were celebrated and later regretted; Algeria,    where a cancelled election led to a vicious civil war; and Turkey, where the army repeatedly intervened to nudge along multi-party democracy while retaining power behind the scenes.

None are particularly apt, not just because of national differences but also because of changes across time – Egypt’s was the world’s first coup to unfold live on Twitter, connecting people in ways that would have been unthinkable in the days when army interventions were imposed on bewildered populations.

And the choice of parallel is essentially political. Optimists might prefer the Turkish model, where the army ousted governments which had lost popular support over corruption, polarising politics or violence – and then forced early elections to retain at least a facade of democracy which was eventually allowed to take root.

Their optimism, though, hardly translates to Egypt. For a start, Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union anchored its democratic reforms. Moreover, it was never colonised, unlike Egypt, Pakistan and Algeria, where armies inherited power structures set up for the benefit of a foreign elite rather than the people, making transitions to democracy all the harder.

Pessimists point to Algeria, where an estimated 200,000 people died in the civil war which erupted after the military in 1992 suppressed an election Islamists were poised to win.

The comparison makes little sense on paper – unlike Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Algerian Islamists enjoyed popular support but were never allowed to govern. A country with a far smaller population than Egypt relative to its size, Algeria also had a tradition of insurgency from its 1954-1962 independence war against France. Its civil war was largely ignored by outside powers, unlike Egypt whose strategic location guarantees international involvement. And its violence was exacerbated by the return of Algerians who had fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

But Algeria nonetheless has resonance for propaganda purposes, playing into the idea promoted particularly by al Qaeda and its jihadi allies that political Islam can never succeed in a democracy. Alluding to that idea, Egyptian President Muhamed Mursi’s National Security Adviser Essam El-Haddad wrote in a farewell Facebook post that, “the message will resonate throughout the Muslim World loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims”.

Pakistan offers a comparison for neither optimists nor pessimists. Under repeated attack by the Pakistani Taliban, it is regarded with suspicion by much of the outside world because of its army’s role in nurturing Islamist militants in the past. Yet this year for the first time in its history, a Pakistani government completed its term and handed power this year to another elected government. And therein lie some possible lessons for Egypt.

Both Pakistan and Egypt are large Muslim countries with powerful armies whose critics accuse them of acting to protect their own economic and political interests in the guise of defending the nation. Both try to balance the need for U.S. aid with conservative populations who have more sympathy for political Islam than secular western values. And as was the case in Egypt, all of Pakistan’s coups – the most recent was in 1999 – were popular initially.

In the chorus of international commentary on Twitter about Egypt, few were more vociferous than Pakistanis in warning Egyptians against supporting military intervention. “As a Pakistani, I can safely say to the people of Egypt: Been there, done that – and it was definitely the wrong choice/ path taken,” tweeted Pakistani journalist Omar Quraishi.

For Pakistan, building the foundations of a democracy has been a long haul. It made many mistakes along the way. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for example, tried to shore up his support with the religious right by overseeing the declaration in 1974 of Ahmadis as non-Muslims – a precedent which paved the way for broader persecution of minorities and led ultimately to the entrenchment of a frequently abused blasphemy law. His attempt at religious populism, which also included banning drinking and gambling, failed: he was overthrown in a 1977 coup and hanged in 1979.

In the 1990s, repeated quarrels and Machiavellian manoeuvres among Pakistani politicians made it easier for the army to manipulate and bring down governments. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif showed early signs of authoritarianism, his overthrow in the 1999 coup by General Pervez Musharraf was celebrated with the distribution of sweets.

But then the politicians learned: if they were to claw power away from the army, they had to set the rules of the game among themselves. A chastened Sharif, exiled to Saudi Arabia, signed with the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) a Charter of Democracy laying out the ground rules in London in 2006.

At the time, the Charter received little international attention. Musharraf was still comfortably in power – the mass protests led by lawyers that eventually forced him out were a year away. But after elections were held in 2008 bringing in a PPP-led government, the Charter helped the democratic project stay the course.

As leader of the opposition, and scarred by the coup which had deposed him, Sharif rarely attacked the PPP-led government to the extent it might become vulnerable to military intervention. PPP leader and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari – a man whose unpopularity rivalled that of Mursi – worked to build up the institutions of democracy, for example devolving power to the provinces, rather than concentrating purely on his own party’s power base. Come this year’s elections, Sharif’s patience was rewarded with a resounding mandate.

Pakistan’s democracy remains fragile. The army continues to dominate foreign and security policy. Like Egypt, Pakistan faces an economic crisis – both need an IMF bailout; both have to confront myriad governance problems, a burgeoning youth population, and loud demands from armed and unarmed Islamists for the introduction of a stricter interpretation of sharia. Like Egypt, Pakistan lies on a geopolitical faultline, making it both strategically useful and vulnerable to manipulation by outside powers.  Yet it managed to pull off the first full democratic transition in its history this year at a time when it faced chilly relations with India to the east and the fall-out of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan to the west.

All countries are different; there is no reason to assume Egypt will follow the same trajectory as Pakistan.  But the approach taken by Pakistan’s politicians is well worth studying; not least for their understanding that armies do not hand over power easily; and that building a democracy requires years of consensus-building among rival politicians to agree how to set the rules.


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Pakistan has never had ‘Islamist’ win elections to be able to form a govt the way MB did in Egypt. However, several elected governments have been sent packing by the militry and politicians have been inviting the militry to overthrow civilian govt instead of waiting to oust them throgh elections.

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