DAWN - Editorial; March 28, 2007

March 28, 2007

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Protesting peacefully

THE nation heaved a sigh of relief when the day of protest called by the opposition parties on Monday passed off peacefully. Although the slogans raised by the demonstrators and the demands made by them — notably the call for the president’s resignation and the reinstatement of the Chief Justice — must have been provocative for the government, it must be given credit for handling the situation with a measure of cool-headedness and discretion. That is how it must be. Quite uncharacteristically, the rallies were not obstructed by the police — obviously under orders from the high-ups — and the demonstrators were allowed to proceed as they had planned. Accordingly, there were no clashes or unruly scenes. The scenario on Monday was quite unlike the nasty scenes that were witnessed during the lawyers’ protest rallies in the past fortnight or so.

Can one assume that at long last common sense has dawned on the policymakers? Given the administration’s knee-jerk reaction to any public expression of dissent and public protest against the government’s policy, previously a day of protest/strike invariably led to violence that escalated into a major show of force and often got out of hand. This spoke of intolerance of dissent by successive governments, democratic or authoritarian. If Monday’s peaceful protests signify a change of heart, it is to be welcomed for it means the government has now come to recognise the importance of allowing public criticism of its policies and actions and not preventing the people from holding protest rallies which is the constitutional right of every citizen as long as they do not indulge in violence and disorder or infringe on anyone’s rights. It is said that the government plans holding its own rallies in support of President Musharraf as a counter to the opposition’s protest rallies. Let them do so as long as they too remain within the bounds of law.

The fact is that the freedom of expression and movement and the right of dissent by every citizen of the country is enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan. This is nothing new. These rights are recognised and respected by all democratic countries. However, these do not condone recourse to violence in any way. The ARD and the other opposition parties did well to keep their protest peaceful. Mostly when violence takes place, it can be attributed to the police which provoke a reaction by using force. Seldom do the demonstrators start off causing violence as that serves no purpose. Indeed, the main lesson to be learnt from Monday’s protest is that these rallies are no more than a show of dissent. The change of government aimed at by a disaffected public is done through the ballot box. Protests and demonstrations are handy tools to mobilise public opinion and are good for political education of the masses. But the parliament of the street is not an appropriate institution to rule the country and get governments to make and unmake policies or appoint or dismiss functionaries. However, protest can at best be used as a pressure tactic to get the government to accede to demands pertaining to changes in the ways of governance and policymaking. Thus, the ARD’s demand voiced at the rallies that fair and free elections be held would find widespread public support, though how an interim government is to be constituted will have to be debated and cannot be imposed without a consensus between the opposition parties and the ruling party.

A facelift for PIA

A FEW days after sending the head of PIA’s engineering department on forced leave has come the news that the airline’s chairman has resigned. This shows that the government has finally realised just how much of a mess the national airline has been in and that it needs to take remedial steps to restore its reputation and credibility. However, before making any hasty decisions, the government must take stock of the situation that has seen the EU ban a majority of PIA’s fleet as well as internal conflicts that saw a weeklong protest by engineers which resulted in the cancellations of many domestic and international flights. It must realise that in today’s competitive world, where people have more choices in airlines, it cannot afford to have a national airline that falls short on so many counts. The EU’s ban was not a bolt from the blue; several of its warnings to PIA about its aircraft not meeting international standards of safety fell on deaf ears. And when the ban did finally come into force, the management’s plea that the EU action was sudden and “discriminatory” was unconvincing. Not so unexpected, however, was the uproar created by the airline’s engineers over a week ago who were protesting against the presence of engineers and staff with no prior experience in a commercial airline. Indeed, PIA has been plagued with a plethora of non-essential staff hired over the decades by various governments. It is perhaps one of the most overstaffed organisations in the country. Its losses are phenomenal — at around one billion rupees a month, according to a Public Account Committee report last year.

The new chairman has a lot of house-cleaning to do. This includes better planning and management of the airline, shedding of the deadwood and better upkeep and maintenance of planes. But the foremost task is the removal of the problems that have led to the EU ban. All planes must meet the international standards of safety. The airline’s personnel must be downsized in a judicious manner and only those with commercial airline experience should be retained. Everything must be done to help the airline regain its once enviable reputation.

Poor upkeep of libraries

ONE hates to sound a pessimistic note, but exactly what can the 17th All Pakistan Libraries Conference be expected to achieve when there is no reading culture in the country? This is not to belittle the conference, for after all it is a positive sign that there is awareness in some quarters of the need for well-stocked public libraries. Nevertheless, when the minister of inter-provincial coordination expresses his satisfaction with the existence of 28,000 public libraries —one wonders how many of these are actually functional — in the country, it is time to voice concern over the authorities’ obsession with numbers and their disregard for other crucial factors, such as the proper upkeep and funding of these repositories of knowledge. Pakistan’s abysmally low literacy rate has contributed in large part to poor reading habits. The advent of a number of TV channels, each vying with the other to provide instant information, and the Internet has not helped matters.

While freedom of expression and the right to knowledge demand that the people be given access to several avenues of information, there is also a need to provide reading material so that the mind can assimilate, understand and analyse through the written word. Scholarship, and consequently excellence, in any field cannot be achieved without strong reading habits, and the government must help in cultivating these by looking after public libraries, providing them with sufficient funds and encouraging their use. This is a difficult task, for respect for the written word is vanishing as was made apparent when women students of a seminary forcibly occupied a children’s library in Islamabad to register their protest against the demolition of illegal mosques. Such an attitude is the result of the low priority attached to institutions like schools and libraries that encourage the acquiring of knowledge and enlightenment.

A former PM’s flawed analysis

By Mahir Ali


IT is neither odd nor particularly alarming that there are competing narratives about the war in Iraq four years after the invasion that engendered it. Not surprisingly, the division between opponents and supporters of the US-led occupation has become a great deal more complex in the interim.

In all this time I have not encountered, in person or in print, anyone who rejected the conflict at the outset but subsequently shuffled across to the opinion that it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. On the other hand, those who have moved in the opposite direction are legion. And their thought processes are often quite intriguing.

For instance, Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi-American whose book The Republic of Fear catalogued the atrocities of Saddam Hussein’s regime, who befriended Ahmad Chalabi and the neo-cons and was cited as an intellectual authority on behalf of belligerence, now says there is little hope for Iraq. In an interview published in The New York Times last Saturday, Brandeis University’s professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies says of his American friends: “Everything they could do wrong, they did wrong.”

However, in Makiya’s eyes the biggest culprits are the Iraqis themselves. “Now it seems necessary,” he says, “to reflect on the society that has gotten itself into this mess ... Just what did 30 years of dictatorship do to 25 million people?”

This is merely a variation on the blame-the-victims mentality that has clouded the thinking of those who find it hard to understand why indiscriminate bombardment does not magically pave the way for free markets and bourgeois democracy. Makiya’s failure to fathom why most Iraqis might not wish to be “liberated” via napalm, depleted uranium and daisy-cutters suggests he has mental issues that are as worthy of professional attention as those of the Iraqi nation.

A somewhat different perspective comes from Ayub Nuri, a graduate student at Columbia University, who recalls worrying himself silly back in 2003 about the possibility that George W. Bush “might change his mind about overthrowing the Iraqi regime”.He visited Iraq in 2003 and fantasised about the post-Saddam possibilities. Three-and-a-half years later he went again, and concluded: “I look back and realise that the fears I had four years ago were misplaced: If Bush had changed his mind about the war, things might be better now.”

That is not an uncommon trajectory, and Kadhim al-Jubouri falls in a similar category. The weightlifter and mechanic had been incarcerated in Abu Ghraib at the behest of Saddam’s son Uday. It was his dream, he says, to topple the 20-foot bronze statue of Saddam that had been erected in Baghdad’s Firdous Square. He got his wish four years ago, chipping away with a sledgehammer under the auspices of the invaders. He was filled with joy at the time. This month he told The Guardian: “I really regret bringing down the statue. The Americans are worse than the dictatorship. Every day is worse than the previous day.”

Opinion polls suggest the overwhelming majority of Iraqis believe the wreck that their country has been reduced to cannot be salvaged without an end to the occupation. Bush continues to believe he knows better, hence the recent surge.

Outside the top echelons of the US, British and Iraqi regimes, it would be hard to track down too many people who have any confidence in the results of the escalation. And even they wouldn’t claim that it could conceivably aid the spread of democracy in the region. The increased military presence has only one purpose: to make the Iraqi capital safe for its occupiers. And even that is a remote prospect.

That is a reasonably common view the world over and, increasingly, across the ideological spectrum. Analysts of all persuasions tend to frame the prognosis for Iraq in terms of the least undesirable outcome: rosy-hued visions have been fading fast. Unless, that is, you are petrified by the idea of expressing any opinion that might antagonise the beleaguered neo-conservative cabal in Washington.

An example of this mentality was on display in last week’s special Iraq edition of BBC television’s Question Time. The panel included Britain’s defence secretary Des Browne; his Conservative shadow, Liam Fox; former Liberal Party leader Charles Kennedy; the president of the Stop the War Coalition, Tony Benn; and via video link from Washington, Bush’s former ambassador to the UN, John Bolton.

There was also a solitary Third World representative, and it is her bizarre views that deserve most comment, not only because what her fellow panelists had to say was broadly predictable, but also because she hopes one day to be the prime minister of Pakistan. For a third time.

That’s not the only illusion Benazir Bhutto harbours. In her opinion the world is now a safer place for some, including the people of Iran, because of Saddam’s removal from power. That’s right, Iran, which has been bracing itself for the next experiment in US-led regime change. What’s more, “once the Iraqis are able to institutionalise democracy”, the invasion and occupation “will be called a success ultimately”.Needless to say, Bhutto knows all about institutionalising democracy. She saw little point in “talking about the past” because “what has happened has happened” and “now we have to look to the future”. Am I alone in perceiving such phrases as subliminally self-serving?

Even when contrasting “the war to overthrow the Taliban” (without the obliquest hint of her second government’s role in creating and arming that fundamentalist force) with “the one to overthrow Saddam”, she was careful not to say anything that the US might construe as criticism. There was, in her view, “a broad-based consensus” behind the invasion of Afghanistan, whereas “with Iraq, on the basis of faulty intelligence, there was the perception of an imminent threat. So the consensus was not worked out.”

Even brazen apologists for the Bush and Blair regimes now hesitate to regurgitate the old falsehoods about faulty intelligence and imminent threats. Beyond that, as far as those at the receiving end of bombing raids are concerned, it makes precious little difference whether or not the instruments of mass destruction are sanctioned by some sort of manufactured consensus.

The broad agreement on assaulting Afghanistan provided little consolation to Afghan victims of western aggression, nor would the cover of a UN Security Council resolution have transformed the fate of the more than half a million Iraqis who have perished since March 2003. The obvious illegality of the Iraq war made it easier to oppose, but a piece of paper would not have qualitatively affected its immorality.

As Tony Benn (the only undiluted voice of reason on the Question Time panel, although Charles Kennedy also chipped in with sensible opinions) pointed out, there is “no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber: both kill innocent reason for political reasons”.

In Bhutto’s view, “the surge has to be the last chance to try and clear out the insurgents, the terrorists and the militants” – in other words, to wipe out the resistance. “And if it succeeds, that’s great.” And if it doesn’t, which is by far the greater likelihood? Well, in that case the coalition (itself a weasel word, as it essentially means the US) should “identify its core interests” – such as providing border security, going after Al Qaeda, training the army and the police and “helping the institutions” – and leave the “political internal dynamics” to Iraq’s people and politicians.

That’s all very well, but it’s hard to see why the idea of leaving Iraq to the Iraqis isn’t applicable retrospectively. How can there be much merit in saying to them, in effect: “We have destroyed your country, now make of it what you will”?

A spurious comparison between the partition of India and the possible disintegration of Iraq did little to aid Bhutto’s arguments, but her disconnect with reality was particularly evident when, addressing an audience member who had lost a son in Iraq and who blamed the British government for gratuitously putting him in harm’s way, she said: “It always amazes me that mothers – here in England, in America and in other parts of the world – have sent their young sons to defend the people who are occupied or facing repression...”

The bereaved mother looked gobsmacked, and Question Time moderator David Dimbleby felt obliged to butt in with a supplementary query, eliciting a response that had Benn vigorously shaking his head in sheer disbelief. “If Iraqi democracy succeeds,” Bhutto unabashedly remarked, then Bush and Tony Blair “will be the champions of freedom, and democracy will spread to the rest of the Middle East.”

And, she might as well have added, pigs will fly. Although her utterances occasionally suggest otherwise, Benazir Bhutto isn’t a blithering idiot. The trouble is that, for all her invocations of democracy, for the past 20 years she has clung on to the belief that the road to Islamabad passes through Washington. The idea of speaking truth to power probably never even crosses her mind, and one can only assume she is unembarrassed by the fact that when it comes to Iraq, a military ruler such as Pervez Musharraf, despite being beholden to the US in a variety of ways, manages to sound much less obsequious.

Bhutto appears to have learned nothing during her years in Dubai, else she would have realised by now that the sine qua non of a political future, as far as she is concerned, is not the goodwill of the White House but the intellectual capacity to acknowledge and apologise for her abysmal record in office.

mahir.worldview@gmail.com



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