Muted protests won’t do
PAKISTANIS have perfected the art of protest. Karachi has posters plastered on the walls calling on people to demonstrate their solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza.
In 2007 Musharraf’s coup against the judiciary brought lawyers on to the roads until ‘democracy’ returned to this country. But why are the voices of protest so muted when it comes to Swat? To protest against such tragedies is a duty. And Swat is a tragedy that will ultimately shape the future of Pakistan.
Is there something more to the situation in Swat than meets the eye? True, the events there have been overshadowed by the larger picture of the war against terror in Fata and Afghanistan. But that doesn’t mean Swat has little to mourn about. It is not just the slaughter that has left the people speechless. It is the accompanying brutality and ruthlessness that make one’s blood curdle. Obviously, the idea is to spread terror. Some snippets from the press make chilling reading:
• The figure for civilian casualties runs into hundreds.
• 200,000 of Swat’s 1.7 million population have fled their homes.
• The government’s effective writ has receded from the state’s 5,337 sq km to 36 sq km around Mingora.
• To terrorise the people, militants resort to a public show of barbarity and instances have been reported of men’s throats being slit and their corpses being left hanging from poles with a warning that they should not be removed.
• Women have been ordered to stay home and those defying the ban have been proclaimed prostitutes and slain.
• Girls’ schools — the number varies from 170 to 200 — have been torched or bombed and female education prohibited.
• Men resisting the Taliban have been declared informers and accomplices of the government and shot dead or have had their property destroyed.
• The militants dominate the airwaves and Maulana Fazlullah’s FM radio continues to pour out its retrogressive messages of violence.
• Swat today has a visible presence of foreigners from Central Asia. What are they doing there?
• People speak of terrorists/training camps operating in the area.
• Tourism the mainstay of Swat’s economy is at a standstill.
These atrocities are shocking and you wonder why people are silent. And then one voice is raised on the Internet. It is Shaheen Sardar Ali’s, a native of that region who teaches law at the Warwick University. In a poignant piece titled “Will the gula-i-nargis bloom this spring in the Swat valley?” she asks: “How long before we will say: enough is enough and rise, speak and act? How much more suffering before we declare emphatically that we refuse to be harassed and silenced any longer and demand answers for the wrongdoings meted out to us? How many more humans will have to be slaughtered, before we stand up and say NO.”
There is method in the madness that has engulfed Swat. This is not simply a battle between two civilisations — one seeking to impose by force its own brand of the Sharia on the people and the other resisting this imposition. If it was just a struggle of this kind, the army with its superior firepower and commitment to defend the writ of the state could easily have checked the insurgency and brought peace to this idyllic valley.
The Taliban by and large do not enjoy the support of the population, we are told, and so this is not a classical case of guerrilla conflict which defies conventional strategies of law enforcement. If Swat continues to be in flames even six months after Operation Rah-i-Haq was launched, there is something sinister going on up there. Has the old game of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds returned to the agenda of the defenders of this land? While the army claims it is waging a war against the Taliban, strangely enough the enemy seems to be thriving as it expands its operations.
At stake is the credibility of the army which has not been helped by the contradiction between words and deeds that is striking. This is not something we are not familiar with. In his exhaustive study of the Pakistan Army, Crossed Swords, Shuja Nawaz speaks of “local militant groups with shadowy links, past or present, to the ISI”, which was, along with other agencies, “allowed to keep open ties to Islamic groups”. Even in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks we have the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, speaking last week of delinking the Inter Services Intelligence from terrorist groups in Pakistan. We do not know how deep and in which direction these links run.
The United States itself is not above all suspicion either. It was known to be engaging the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1997 when Washington was interested in procuring an oil and gas pipeline project for Unocal in that country. Now it wants them decimated.
And what about our political parties that now feign to be so powerless in Swat? They have all contributed in one way or another to facilitating the rise of Islamic militancy. Just read what Dr Fazal-ur-Rahim Marwat of the University of Peshawar recounts in his book Talibanisation of Pakistan. According to him, it was in June 1989 that the elders of Malakand convened a meeting of the representatives of all political parties that included the ANP, PPP and PML-N as well as an assortment of religious groups to set up the Tehrik-i-Nifaaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TSNM) which chose Maulana Sufi Mohammad of the JI as its leader. The TNSM began gathering strength in 1994 when the PPP was in office in Islamabad and Naseerullah Babar was busy organising the Taliban in Afghanistan.Not to be left behind, it was the PML-N government in its second stint which extended formal recognition to the Taliban regime in Kabul in 1997, clearly indicating its leanings. Today, the ANP presides over the tragedy in Swat.
It is difficult to define the changing equations between the numerous stakeholders. Now when the genie is out of the bottle, who will take the blame? The common people of Swat will have to bear the brunt and for many of them the gula-i-nargis will never bloom again, though the crisis is not of their making. n
Impatience with democracy
A PHRASE which one hears increasingly in the media is that people are getting ‘impatient with democracy’ and more critical of this elected government.
Subtle warnings about what may happen are being sent out to those who are criticising the incumbent government. This criticism is being interpreted as a criticism of democracy.
While clearly the government in power in Islamabad today and the processes and institutions of democracy are two different entities, my argument here is that there is always a need to be impatient with democracy rather than succumb to the ‘let-us-wait-and-see’ approach. In fact, it is only a vigilant and critically impatient engagement with democracy which ensures that essential and urgent democratic steps are taken to ensure its longevity.
Clearly, one is not talking here of any sort of adventurism. All transitions from military government to electoral and democratic politics are brittle and require strengthening over a fair amount of time. Nevertheless, after making an objective assessment of conditions and the situation of all actors involved, one needs to point out the urgency to press on with the democratic agenda further.
One of the key questions which troubles me regarding Pakistan’s democracy — current and past — is why it is that democrats and elected civilian representatives fail to strengthen and deepen democracy once they achieve power. In opposition, the same political parties and their leaders make many promises which would ensure that democracy be strengthened and anti-democratic forces become weakened once they come to power.
However, on all three occasions — 1971, 1988 and 2008 — once in power after undemocratic dispensations, elected representatives failed to carry out substantial political tasks which would have ensured the longevity of their own government and of democracy itself. Because of the lack of attention to furthering democracy’s agenda, I believe that democratically elected governments should share the blame for democracy’s failure and subsequent military intervention precisely because they fail to further democracy once in power.
Throughout 2007, following the lawyer’s movement which started in March, Gen Musharraf’s Nov 3 emergency and the Dec 27 assassination of Ms Bhutto, there was a huge momentum against the military, against the war on terror and against Gen Musharraf and his government, a sentiment which turned positive towards democracy, participation and representation.
It became quite clear that whoever would form the government after elections would have a freer hand in boosting the democratic agenda further than perhaps at any time in Pakistan’s history since 1971. In nearly four decades, with so much popular support, with a weakened establishment and a retreating military, real democracy was poised to take root in Pakistan. Sadly, however, by not responding to certain necessary interventions in the political process, the Zardari-Gilani government has failed to strengthen democracy in Pakistan, and may have actually set up the grounds to weaken it.
Leading up to the elections of February 2008, people and voters had come to expect a number of key issues to be addressed. These included: the ouster of President Musharraf after his party lost the election and after Ms Bhutto’s assassination and the hope that the retired general-president would be held accountable for his anti-democratic nine years; the reinstatement of the deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry; a repeal of Gen Musharraf’s 17th Amendment to the Constitution particularly Article 58-2(b) which allows the president of Pakistan to dismiss an elected government; and a wish-list which hoped that a coalition between Mr Zardari’s People Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League could have tried to clip the military’s wings and assert civilian power over what in Pakistan is called ‘the establishment’.
All that has happened from this list, is that Mr Zardari removed President Musharraf and became president himself. Musharraf was not tried nor held accountable, nor were any of the other political tasks addressed which would have significantly strengthened democracy. This has been the third occasion, following 1971 and 1988, where a democratic dispensation’s greatest failure has been its inability and unwillingness to further democracy in Pakistan. In fact, given that democratic forces were strongest and largely united against authoritarianism in 2008, far more than in 1971 and 1988, or perhaps at any other time, this must count as democracy’s biggest failure.
Under such circumstances and conditions, it is perhaps criminal to be quiet and be ‘patient’ with democracy. One becomes complicit in the fall of democracy and in the revival of authoritarian and military rule by not being consistently vigilant with regard to a democratic programme and transition which continues to have broad and far-reaching support. In fact, democracy is strengthened only by more democracy, not less of it. There are clear signals that the government is weakening and has lost its writ over parts of Pakistan, and that anti-democratic forces are strengthening their attacks on the elected government.
Despite this, at least for the moment, but one cannot say for how much longer, the democratic process still seems fairly secure in Pakistan, even though it has clearly weakened over the last few months. Perhaps this weakening has been on account of too much patience with democracy and not enough impatience with it.
Arab leaders’ passivity
IT was Monday, so it had to be Kuwait. And there they were, 17 leaders and five senior representatives of all 22 members of the Arab League, gathered to discuss the impact of the global economic crisis, though the original agenda was hijacked by the end of Israel’s devastating three-week onslaught against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Monday’s summit of kings, presidents and emirs did produce one piece of good news for the battered Palestinians: a Saudi cheque for $1bn that will certainly help rebuild bombed mosques, schools and homes. But it raises the wider question of what Arabs can and should do to help the cause they hold so dear — when they cannot even agree on an agenda and when or where to meet.
On Sunday the heads of state of Egypt and Jordan, both stalwarts of the so-called moderate or western-backed camp, were the only Arabs to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh conference. Last Friday there was an Arab majority in the Qatari capital Doha — though still not the required two-thirds quorum for a formal Arab League summit. Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, was the star of that show, along with the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, his Palestinian guests in Damascus. Non-Arab Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the other special invitee. This is the core of jabhat al-mumana’a — the Arab “refusal front”.
Thursday saw leaders of the smaller Gulf states summoned to the Saudi capital Riyadh to upstage the next day’s gathering in Doha. It all brings to mind Gandhi’s smart response to a question about his view of western civilisation: Arab unity would be “a good idea” too.
Arab disarray was a fact of life before Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. But the crisis has put it on cruel and very public display, drawing the contempt and fury of what is so condescendingly called the “street” from Algeria to Yemen. The league may be a bad joke, but its members still represent 320 million people. “In the fog of war,” commented the Egyptian scholar Mamoun Fandy in the Saudi-owned daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, “everything was suddenly crystal clear”.
Anger with Israel and solidarity with the Palestinians are still natural instincts across the Middle East and North Africa. The memory of the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) has never faded; the humiliation of the 1967 defeat lives on. Yet sympathy for the martyred children of Gaza does not equate automatically with support for Hamas, which is often attacked for recklessly believing it can defeat Israel.
Very few imagine a return to the unified Arab military efforts of the past. Most Arabs, including most Palestinians, accept Israel as a reality, though there are those — with whom Ahmadinejad agrees — who take the longer view. That sees Israel as a modern Crusader state that may yet endure for a century or more but is an artificial, colonialist implant that is destined to wither. This may be no more than wishful thinking. But it ignores Israel’s evident strengths and the fact that the majority of its now native-born, Hebrew-speaking Jewish citizens have no other homeland to go “back” to. Still, the perception that it is a fundamentally illegitimate entity combines with resentment at its unassailable (nuclear-armed) regional hegemony.
Not surprisingly, the most strident voice of the “refusal front” has been that of Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, who blundered into war with Israel in 2006 and served as a model for Hamas in Gaza — though this time he kept his powder dry. Islamists elsewhere mocked the impotence and passivity of “treacherous” Arab governments they scorn as US puppets or Zionist stooges.
Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak has been the target of much fury. Now 80 and serving a pharaonic fifth consecutive presidential term, he has been attacked for refusing to open the Gaza border. It has all been grist to the mill of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest (but outlawed) opposition movement and supporter of the like-minded Hamas — whose election was so uncomfortable for Cairo. It was Mubarak who inherited the original “sin” of recognising Israel from his predecessor Anwar Sadat.
In the same boat is Jordan’s King Abdullah, the other Arab neighbour with a peace treaty with Israel — though like his father Hussein, Abdullah is ever mindful of the Palestinians who make up the majority of his subjects.
Facing them is the canniest, but perhaps also the most pliable, of the “refusers”, Syria’s Assad, a weaker version of his famously iron-willed father Hafez. Hopes of seeing him press Hamas or Hezbollah or abandon his alliance with Iran ensure a steady stream of western supplicants to his Damascus palace. Barack Obama’s envoy may well be next. So against this complex, deeply fissured background, whither Israel and the Arab world after Gaza? Israel makes much of Saudi and other conservative Arab fears of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its promotion, in Iraq, Lebanon and beyond, of Sunni-Shia divisions. But this ignores the crucial importance — symbolic and real — to all Arabs of finally resolving the Palestinian issue.
Saudi King Abdullah told the Kuwait summit that the 2002 Arab League initiative, offering Israel the recognition of all 22 Arab states in return for a return to the 1967 borders and the creation of an independent Palestinian state, remains on the table, but warned that it will not remain there indefinitely. The Arab “refusers” wanted it withdrawn after the pounding of Gaza. It is hard to see it surviving another bloodletting like that.
— The Guardian, London