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Pakistan is not Egypt but....



By Syed Mansoor Hussain

July 06, 2013

On December 15, 2012, Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize winning op-ed writer for The New York Times wrote a column titled “Egypt: The Next India or the Next Pakistan?” The column was pretty well written except for the gratuitous put down of Pakistan. Perhaps today if Friedman reread his own column he might find the courage to say that Egypt would have done well enough if it had been just a bit more like Pakistan and managed to push its democratic government through at least one full term. Some of us might also remember the pictures from the time when Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State of the US, visited Egypt and was faced with placards that read “Egypt is not Pakistan.”

Indeed Egypt is not Pakistan and Pakistan is not Egypt. But as far as democracy is concerned, Egypt and its now deposed President Mohamed Morsi would have done well to have looked at Pakistan and its most recent return to real democracy five years ago. The lesson he might have learned is that democracy cannot become a dictatorship of the majority and that popular support tends to evaporate if there is no evident improvement in the living conditions of ordinary people. And that ideology though important in winning elections is not quite that useful when it comes to time to govern, especially in a democratic setup.

Pakistan has been lucky in a strange sort of way when it comes to democracy. First and foremost, the founder of Pakistan was a committed democrat and whatever might have happened over the last 65 years, the essential vision of Mohammad Ali Jinnah still prevails. Second, the people of Pakistan came out in the streets twice to replace existing governments. First was in 1968 against Ayub Khan but found that what came next was even worse, another general who led Pakistan to its dismemberment. The second time people rose up was against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977 but in the place of Bhutto they got the worst possible alternative, 11 years of military rule, which are arguably the darkest years in Pakistan’s history. So in a way the people of this country have learned an invaluable lesson: revolutions rarely bring a better alternative.

As I look back at the last 10 years in Pakistan, there are two people that deserve credit for allowing democracy to survive and even arguably flourish. First the presently much maligned General (Retd) Pervez Musharraf for allowing a free and vociferous media to develop and then when the time came for him to leave, of making a rapid exit. Indeed for the nine years ‘General’ Musharraf was in power never did we see tanks in the streets or soldiers opposing any group of civilians, even at the height of the movement to restore the ousted judiciary.

The other person that deserves some credit is President Asif Ali Zardari. He is the only president in the history of Pakistan that willingly devolved the powers concentrated in the presidency to the office of the prime minister, and more importantly, he kept the fragile democratic system going until it was time for an election and then allowed a smooth transfer of power. Also, Zardari established an important tradition that I hope continues: he never used the machinery of the state to silence his political opponents or his detractors in the media. That the PPP-led government during his tenure as president was incompetent and corrupt is why it suffered such a major electoral defeat throughout the country except in its stronghold of rural Sindh. And that is what is expected in a democracy.

Frankly, Pakistan gets a lot of bad press in the western media. Much of it deserved, but then much of this ‘bad press’ is a product of our ‘westernised elite’ that live ‘high on the hog’ while in Pakistan but miss no chance to point out all that is bad with the country when they write for or make appearances in western media. Saying bad things about Pakistan is evidently quite in fashion. Indeed terrorism, religious extremism, suppression of minorities and sectarian violence is on the rise, but at the same time a vibrant liberal social milieu exists and seems to be flourishing. Poverty, illiteracy, inadequate public healthcare are all banes of this society and even though it does not seem to be a major priority of any recent government, incremental and gradual improvement is occurring.

Much is made of ‘high level’ corruption. In my opinion such corruption is a problem but not the major problem we face as a country. Over the last few months as I spent time talking to people in different strata of society about the upcoming elections, the ones that complained the most about corruption of the PPP were the rich and well off. It was almost as if they felt envious that somebody else was making more money than they were and that also without being caught. It was the tax evading millionaires that seemed most distraught at the millions being made ‘illegally’ by government officials and politicians in power.

It is indeed true that Pakistan is not Egypt. The one lesson our new Prime Minister (PM) has hopefully learnt from his own past experience, of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto before him, and from Mohamed Morsi now, it does not matter whom you appoint as the new head of the army. The new head of the army will not be ‘loyal’ to you but to the force he leads. He will always put the interests of the army ahead of perceived interests of his political masters. In almost every ‘developing’ country including Egypt, the army is a distinct political as well as a corporate entity with its own interests.

And two other things our PM could relearn from what happened in Egypt. First, mandates are evanescent and second, winning an election does not give you the right to ignore those that have lost.

Syed Mansoor Hussain has practised and taught medicine in the US.