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Stop and Smell the Roses in Pakistan

By Mona Eltahawy

NEW YORK -- As an Egyptian whose country’s military dictators are either taken by God or an assassin’s bullet, I envy the Pakistani people their ability to now use the term “former president.”

As former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf contemplates how his friends in the U.S. administration dropped him quicker than you can say “hot freedom fries,” for those of us from the Muslim world -- awash in military dictators who have friends in high places in Washington -- his exit from Pakistan’s frenetic political stage is miraculous.

The naysayers will remind us of all the “ifs” and “buts” that remain for Pakistan. For starters, Musharraf’s two main rivals, who engineered the threatened impeachment elbowing him towards resignation -- Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari -- are nowhere near perfect leaders, especially since the only factor uniting them is now contemplating the real estate of exile sites in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Sharif -- the former prime minister swept aside by Musharraf’s bloodless 1999 coup -- was himself in exile until last year when he returned home vowing political revenge. He wants to try Musharraf for treason. Meanwhile, Zardari, the widow of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has taken a more conciliatory line.

They might disagree on Musharraf’s future, but what they do have in common is ignominious histories of corruption -- a reminder that dictators like Musharraf are experts at stifling the life out of their country’s politics, and leaving poor alternatives to their rules by coup d’état.

We will be reminded that the Taliban and al-Qaeda and all those other scary figures Musharraf dutifully fought as part of his card-carrying membership in the ‘war on terror’ are now celebrating in every cave that straddles Pakistan’s troubled border with Afghanistan.

Last year, militant friends of the newly insurgent Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies slaughtered hundreds of Pakistanis in waves of suicide bombings across the country. But much like his fellow Muslim dictators befriended by Washington, Musharraf just perfected his technique of using them as Islamist boogeymen.

My country’s President Hosni Mubarak points to the Muslim Brotherhood. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas points to Hamas. But neither can beat having Osama bin Laden allegedly hiding somewhere in his country!

Although he presented himself as a secular leader, Musharraf gave free rein to those same Islamists that he was warning the West about, because they were a foil to Pakistan’s vibrant liberal community.

It’s unclear who will become Pakistan’s next president but there’s no doubt that the ruling coalition’s challenges are many, now that Musharraf is out of the picture: fighting inflation, reducing the gap between rich and poor, and continuing to fight militancy in the nuclear-armed country. For Pakistan, politics has been a rollercoaster ride since its birth in 1947, as a partition from India.

But let’s stop for a moment and appreciate what has just happened in Pakistan: The Constitution and the justice system of a Muslim country were about to impeach a sitting president who was once head of the armed forces. Rather than face such accountability, that president resigned.

To further put Pakistan’s achievement in context consider that had he insisted on fighting impeachment, Musharraf faced charges of violating the constitution and gross misconduct. Why?

Because he imposed six weeks of emergency rule and fired dozens of judges last November, when the Supreme Court met to decide his eligibility to stand for re-election for a third term as president while still army chief.

Egypt has lived under emergency rule for each and every one of Mubarak’s four terms in power straddling 26 years. In 2006, his regime showed a similar allergy to an independent judiciary. Mubarak’s regime disciplined two senior judges and arrested and beat dozens of their supporters when the judges had the temerity to press for an inquiry into electoral fraud during the 2005 parliamentary elections which Mubarak’s party swept. The elections were marred by violence, several deaths, and plenty of intimidation.

Just like Musharraf, Mubarak recognized the dangers of an independent judiciary -- which in many Muslim countries constitutes the most potent secular opposition. But don’t hold your breath for Mubarak’s impeachment any time soon.

“Let’s hope we can learn from this in Egypt,” my dad told me as we discussed Musharraf’s resignation. “It will tell our dictators ‘you are not more powerful than the people’.”

It will also signal to our various dictators that no matter how tight you are with Washington, no matter how well you have managed to persuade your American friends that you’re the only thing that stands between them and Islamist lunatics, they will look away when your people have had it with you.

For years Pakistan has been home to much that ails the Muslim world -- coups, dictatorship, militancy, and corruption. Let’s recognize it now as home to judges and lawyers who won their stare-down with the dictator.

And let’s remind Sharif, Zardari and whoever becomes Pakistan’s next president:

“Hey, those same judges and lawyers against whom Musharraf foolishly picked a fight and lost are there keeping an eye on you, too.”

To the people of Pakistan -- I salute you!

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

Copyright ©2008 Mona Eltahawy – distributed by Agence Global
Released: 19 August 2008
Word Count: 843

Riaz Haq's Commentary on this article:

" This Egyptian-American writer's view is definitely a tribute to the people of Pakistan. It shows how Pakistanis (South Asian Muslims) are different from their Arab brethren. Although there are no term-limits to military dictators, Pakistani dictators usually fold in approx 10 years. Examples include Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Ziaul Haq.
However, it's too early to say "kudos" to Nawaz Sharif or Asif Zardari, given their past failures. The real test of Pakistani politicians and people now is whether they can build sustainable institutions of democracy that are responsive to the needs of the nation. While I admire India's democracy, I strongly fee that it has failed to serve the vast majority of its ordinary people. I hope Pakistani version of democracy turns out better than its Indian counterpart."

August 20, 2008

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