Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
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.
The Egyptian uprising contains much that is familiar to Pakistan – the dark warnings of a coup, in Egypt’s case delivered by Vice President Omar Suleiman, the role of political Islam, and a relationship with the United States distorted by U.S. aid and American strategic interests which do not match those of the people.
President Hosni Mubarak cited Pakistan as an example of what happened when a ruler like President Pervez Musharraf – like himself from the military - was forced to make way for democracy. ”He fears that Pakistan is on the brink of falling into the hands of the Taliban, and he puts some of the blame on U.S. insistence on steps that ultimately weakened Musharraf,” a 2009 U.S. embassy cable published by WikiLeaks said.
All 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.
President-elect Barack Obama has been getting a lot of advice these days on how to deal with Muslims and Islam. He invited it by saying during his campaign that he either wanted to convene a conference with leaders of Muslim countries or deliver a major speech in a Muslim country "to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular”. But where? when? why? how? Early this month, I chimed in with a pitch for a speech in Turkey or Indonesia. Some quite interesting comments have come in since then. (Photo: Obama image in Jakarta, 25 Oct 2008/Dadang Tri)
Two French academics, Islam expert Olivier Roy and political scientist Justin Vaisse argued in a New York Times op-ed piece on Sunday that Obama's premise of trying to reconcile the West and Islam is flawed:
U.S. government and military leaders worry that the next attack on the homeland will emanate from western Pakistan, believing al Qaeda to have reconstituted there.
But Pakistanis worry too for their security and their fear is the U.S. military itself.