Illustration by Radia Durrani


At the root of Pakistan’s current political impasse is the issue of power.
Published April 16, 2023

When a colleague pressed German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg about what had caused World War I, up until then the most devastating war the world had seen, Hollweg replied: “Ah, if we only knew.”

Thus begins Graham Allison in his now-famous book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides Trap. Hollweg’s answer, Allison tells us, haunted John F Kennedy nearly 50 years later. Vacationing at Camp Cod in the summer of 1962, Kennedy read Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August and absorbed Tuchman’s argument that none of the European leaders “understood the danger they faced.” None wanted a war and yet they “sleepwalked into the abyss.”

“Kennedy,” Allison says, “pledged that if he ever found himself facing choices that could make the difference between catastrophic war and peace, he would be able to give history a better answer than Hollweg’s.” Two months after he had read Tuchman’s book, in October 1962, he was confronting the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Allison says, “Although he appreciated the dangers of his predicament, Kennedy repeatedly made choices he knew actually increased the risk of war, including nuclear war.” If any of those choices had led to World War III and if, perchance, two people had survived it, “Could [Kennedy] give a better answer to an inquisitor’s question than Hollweg did?”

At the root of Pakistan’s current political impasse is the issue of power: who has the power to coerce? Which person, party or institution has the means to not only perpetrate but perpetuate its power? This is the principal contradiction, as Mao Zedong would put it, that needs to be understood

Lesson: the complexity of causation, as Allison and other scholars have noted, is vexing, not just in relation to how and why wars happen, but also how states and societies govern themselves and how many fail in developing the internal balance that, to quote economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, lies in a “narrow corridor”.

But the important lesson from Thucydides and other historians is that, while immediate or proximate causes are important as a fillip or sparks — e.g. the fatal shooting of Hapsburg archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo which triggered WWI — it is the structural factors that need to be understood, “conditions in which otherwise manageable events can escalate with unforeseeable severity and produce unimaginable consequences.”

Impasse at home

Since the ouster through a vote of no-confidence (VoNC) of former prime minister Imran Khan, much ink and even more air waves are being wasted on day-to-day commentary about events and proximate causes.

The discourse for the most part is partisan and reflects the binaries that come to inform peoples’ views in complex situations, where a number of issues remain unresolved. Physical sciences defeated ignorance and superstition through experimentation and discoveries. Social scientists — economists are the worst offenders — despite trying to mathematise the social sphere, keep running into cul-de-sacs because, as the American theologian and sociologist Reinhold Niebuhr noted trenchantly in 1932 in his canonical work Moral Man and Immoral Society, “Complete rational objectivity in a social situation is impossible.”

In most, if not all such cases, economic and power interests of a dominant class or classes (take, for instance, the idea of elite capture — or extractive elites — which is a genuine concern but, in the absence of any real analysis, has become just another trope) will create injustices that “cannot be resolved by moral and rational suasion alone.” When there are no institutions available — or where the form of such institutions is a mere red-herring — “conflict [will be] inevitable, and in this conflict power must be challenged by power.”

This is not to say that most people agitating the socio-political and economic disharmony that we are witnessing here take to the streets after reading Thucydides or Plutarch. Nor should one confuse the current crop of leaders in this country — civilian and uniformed — as representing Solon or even Theseus. But there are real structural imbalances which cannot be dealt with through mere commentary on daily events and which have hobbled this country’s socio-political and economic spheres for seven decades.

As political scientist Mehran Kamrava noted in his Inside the Arab State, “The essence of politics boils down to state-society relations. But these relations are far from mechanical. There are cultural, ideological and normative dimensions to the interactions as well, and such factors as legitimacy and citizenship are also instrumental in shaping politics.”

 PDM leaders are now criticising Imran Khan and the PTI for undermining the army | White Star
PDM leaders are now criticising Imran Khan and the PTI for undermining the army | White Star

The case of Egypt

In a putsch on July 3, 2013, while leading a coalition, Gen Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, a mechanised infantry officer who had also served as head of Military Intelligence, deposed Egypt’s elected president Mohamed Morsi and suspended the country’s 2012 constitution.

Sisi had come to relative prominence after the 18-day protests in 2011, which had forced President Hosni Mubarak to leave office and when he was named a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The SCAF ran Egypt as an interim arrangement after Mobarak’s departure.

His position in the system was further entrenched when Morsi, after being elected president in June 2012, appointed Sisi as commander-in-chief of the military and defence minister in August that year. This decision, among other things, was to set in motion events in Egypt that would transform the promise of the Arab Spring into what political scientist Steven Cook famously called the “false dawn”.

A little-remembered fact of what happened after Morsi’s, and with him the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB), rise to power is the role of Egypt’s secular-liberal enclave. To simplify matters for our purpose, the secular-liberals were deeply unhappy at the prospect of Morsi and MB running Egypt. The opposition parties and their supporters accused Morsi’s government of poor economic policy, energy shortages, lack of security and creating diplomatic crises. The last reference was about Morsi’s favourable approach to foreign intervention in Syria.

Protests broke out by the end of 2012. Observers noted that opposition politicians were in secret talks with the military, essentially the C-in-C of the military, Sisi. “In the months before the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s top generals met regularly with senior aides to opposition leaders, often at the Navy Officers’ Club nestled on the Nile,” reported Wall Street Journal in a July 19, 2013 report titled ‘In Egypt, the ‘Deep State’ Rises Again.’ The report mentioned a number of politicians including Mohamed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi.

But the distaste for Morsi and MB ran much deeper. Liberals, who had taken active part in the Tahrir Square demonstrations in 2011 that forced out Mubarak, were now hobnobbing with the military. The late Egyptian writer and feminist, Nadal El Saadawi, welcomed Morsi’s ouster as a “historical revolution and not a coup d’état.” According to her, “The revolutionaries turned to the army and the army responded.”

El Saadawi repeated this to Rachel Cooke at The Observer in an interview in October 2015 when Cooke pointed out that “state killings and the numbers of government opponents languishing in prison are both dramatically on the rise.” “Not at all,” she says, stubbornly. “There is a world of difference between Mubarak and Sisi. He has got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that never happened with Mubarak, or with Sadat before him.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Esraa Abdel Fattah, activist and journalist who earned the moniker “Facebook Girl” during the Tahrir Square demonstrations in 2011. “When terrorism is trying to take hold of Egypt and foreign interference is trying to dig into our domestic affairs, then it’s inevitable for the great Egyptian people to support its armed forces against the foreign danger.” In an ironic twist, just like many other dissenters, Fattah spent almost two years in detention after being arrested in October 2019.

But the irony runs deeper than just the person of Fattah and other secular-liberals, including liberal politicians, civil society actors, journalists and left-oriented labour leaders. Most of them, though not all, wanted to get rid of Morsi and MB and struck a Faustian bargain with the military.

The result: Sisi has consolidated personal rule, militarised the Egyptian political system and attrited the opposition.

 The current impasse has also revealed the fissures within the SC and delivered a severe blow to its role as an arbiter | White Star
The current impasse has also revealed the fissures within the SC and delivered a severe blow to its role as an arbiter | White Star

Principal contradictions

As I have noted elsewhere, when Mao Zedong penned his essay ‘On Contradiction’ in July 1937, he was tackling a practical problem. The theoretical part of the essay was to provide philosophical support for the practical problem: the military threat from Japan, which had declared war against China.

The war became an inflection point for China. Before then, for an entire decade, Chinese Communists had fought Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists. The Communists were chased and killed in a bloody civil war and paid a heavy price. But after Japan invaded China and threatened both Communists and Nationalists, what were the Communists to do?

The dogmatic wanted to consider the Nationalists as an internal threat while looking at Japan as an external enemy. That meant fighting two adversaries, an untenable military-strategic position. This was the practical problem Mao faced. But he needed a theoretical argument to explain what was at stake.

Mao’s argument, relevant to our purpose, was the premise that, “There is nothing that does not contain contradiction; without contradiction nothing would exist.” But, as he argued, this concept of “contradiction” is not static; it’s dynamic:

“The fundamental contradiction becomes more and more intensified as it passes from one stage to another in the lengthy process. In addition, among the numerous major and minor contradictions which are determined or influenced by the fundamental contradiction, some become intensified, some are temporarily or partially resolved or mitigated, and some new ones emerge; hence the process is marked by stages.”

In essence, Mao wanted the Communists to distinguish in a complex situation between what was a principal contradiction and what [are/were] the aspects of a principal contradiction. Over time, and given the changing situations, “the principal and non-principal [secondary] aspects of a contradiction can transform themselves into each other, and the nature of it changes accordingly.”

 ‘One-page partners’: former PM Imran Khan and former COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa | White Star
‘One-page partners’: former PM Imran Khan and former COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa | White Star

Contradictions and perceptions

Two points are important here. The principal contradiction and its dynamism is not just a problem of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, that assessment being just one aspect of it. It’s not about the Egyptian secular-liberals saying that, since Morsi is an Islamist, let’s side with Sisi and, by extension, the military. It’s a structural issue, at the core of which lies power. Who has the power to coerce? Put another way, who can rig the system in ways that would allow that person, party or institution to not only perpetrate but perpetuate its power?

In some countries, it’s the military. In others it has been — can be, and is — a single party/ideology. For instance, the Egyptian secular-liberals as a broad category had to figure out whether the principal contradiction lay between all the civilian actors and the military or between Morsi’s and MB’s Islamism and secularity. They chose the latter. But in doing that, they forgot the element of power and the coercion that flows from it.

Resultantly, after Morsi was ousted and Sisi entrenched himself, he decided to crackdown on dissent regardless of the ideology of the dissenter. The Grim Reaper, as we know, is indiscriminate.

Niebuhr writes: “The coercive factor is…always present in politics. If economic interests do not conflict too sharply, if the spirit of accommodation partially resolves them, and if the democratic process has achieved moral prestige and historic dignity, the coercive factor in politics may become too covert to be visible to the casual observer.

“Nevertheless, only a romanticist of the purest water could maintain that a national group ever arrives at a ‘common mind’ or becomes conscious of a ‘general will’ without the use of either force or the threat of force.”

The ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ approach, sans a careful examination of where power resides and who exercises it, is destined to fall prey to its own contradiction, namely an initial acceptance that allying with a powerful force is important to fight the adversary but ignoring how the powerful force will act when the initial objective has been met.

In other words, it’s the difference between avoiding a two-front situation and preserving one’s strength versus allying with a force more powerful than one can muster in order to worst the adversary. The first is strategy; the second, hope.

Pakistan and its contestants

As noted above, Pakistan stands at an impasse, perhaps a Mexican stand-off, described as a confrontation where no strategy exists that allows any party to achieve victory. Again, the current situation — partisans notwithstanding — did not develop with the VoNC against Khan. It has been evolving over decades.

At the core of it is what Kamrava describes as power politics (I will add other interests that come with the exercise of power), “who wins, who loses, and who is able to outsmart or outmuscle others in the bid to institutionalise newly-won powers.” The interest of the dominant group or coalition becomes “the agendas of the state.”

We have four actors in the arena: Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the current Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government, the judiciary, and the army. People, for the most part, even when aligned with one or the other political actor are largely irrelevant (that’s another discussion and a system problem but it’s important to flag it.)

In the 2018 elections, the army sided with Khan. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had already fallen foul of the army and Nawaz Sharif was disqualified through a verdict that remains controversial. In 2021, Khan got a taste of the army’s “neutrality” when his weakest link, the PTI allies were made to develop a “conscience”. Much is now known, given the penchant by both Khan and former army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa for hanging out the dirty laundry for public viewing.

After his ouster, Khan took to the road. His motif in the speeches was (to some extent even now) to discredit the army’s top brass, especially the former army chief. At the same time, Khan was also privately reaching out to the army chief, a fact acknowledged, and defended, by leaders of his own party.

This is the point where we return to Mao. PML-N’s elder Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif attacked the army when out of power; Khan and his supporters are doing the same now that they are out of power. When in power, Khan and his ministers would blast the PML-N/PDM for attacking the army. The PML-N/PDM leaders are now blasting Khan and the PTI for undermining the army.

Corollary one: even as the army’s image has taken a beating, within the system it still retains the capability to control events and outcomes. And since there’s a difference between the morals of groups and individuals, the army, just like any other group (or actor), would do whatever it can to dominate this national setting.

Corollary two: for all his rhetoric against some in the brass, Khan still believes that the principal contradiction lies between him and the political opposition. This, understandably, precludes any possibility of a political charter between PTI and the rest and, consequently, allows the army to remain dominant.

In a cover article published in Eos on December 18, 2022, I had made two central observations: the military’s dominance is not just a coup problem, because militaries just need to control strategic nodes within the system.

The second observation, flowing from this, was that to think the army “is about to change its disposition is to live in a fool’s paradise.”

Zero-sum game

The country is now politically unstable, economically near-insolvent and socially divisive. Khan’s view that he won’t talk to the “imported” government is now reciprocated by the latter. The federal interior minister, Rana Sanaullah, is on record as having said that “it’s either us or Khan.“

These positions fly in the face of an understanding of politics as a process of aggregating conflicting and often contradictory interests. Privately, political sources on both sides of the divide also say, sotto voce, that the army doesn’t want Khan to return to power because its top leadership does not trust him and fears that he might take steps that could disrupt the organisational cohesiveness of the army. That cohesiveness, incidentally, has already come under great strain.

This requires engineering because popularity polls and ratings show Khan to be miles ahead of other leaders. He is pressuring the system through the dissolution of the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa assemblies. The system is fighting back by using semi-legal and illegal ruses. The Constitution mandates a 90-day period for elections to be held. The Election Commission of Pakistan is the body required to hold elections. But in the current contested landscape, this clear provision has become a bone of contention and is now dragging the Supreme Court (SC) through the mud.

The happenings at the SC reflect the partisan divide in this country. Lawyers train hard to play on technicalities and procedures but, when arguments are spiced by political leanings and preferences, the focus on technicalities to the exclusion of substance runs the risk of shystering.

While there can be multiple positions and choices, especially where those positions are informed by partisan leanings, a course of action must be guided by the clarity provided by laws and the Constitution.

That is unfortunate for two reasons: one, the conversation about SC’s functioning and the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s place is indeed an important one. But when this conversation happens at the time it is happening and in the manner in which it is happening, it begins to come across as a diversion rather than something important in its own right.

Two, in addition to the timing and the manner in which it is being conducted, it is not only interfering with the substantive issue of elections, it seems to want to shoot it down. Thirdly, but not least, the mutinous approach to tackling these internal issues has shown the fissures within the SC and delivered a severe blow both to its role as an arbiter and its ability to do better than other institutions on whose actions it is supposed to arbitrate.

This is why the current government has “advised” the SC to first put its own house in order, a perfect example of the pot calling the kettle black.

A state bereft

There are two paths to change: one is gradualness, the other is disruption.

History bears testimony to both. Personally, I am an incrementalist. But that approach implies aggregation and compromise, where parties in a conflict confer together, “moderate their demands and arrive at a modus vivendi.”

But what if that doesn’t happen? What if the disinherited and powerless groups in a society — or the aspiring urban youth as seems to be the case here — cannot make their voices heard, much less have the space to confer? Participating in a power and interest balance in a state-society relationship is after all not really the same as being a corporate shareholder who can sell the stock and exit, though many are exiting, some even drowning in the process.

How do you reorganise the values where the dominant group or groups are simply not interested in sharing power and can rig the system in their favour, especially if winning and losing becomes a zero-sum game?

Many states survive (even increase overall prosperity) despite politico-ideological repression, China being a good example. But they do so through economic progress and sound developmental policies, though the issue of political participation can continue to simmer despite overall prosperity. Pakistan neither has political stability nor economic prospects. And while it is still some way short of being an entirely authoritarian state, it is steadily moving in that direction.

Finally, to bring the wheel full circle, let me quote Kamrava on Egypt: “Regardless of how the post-uprising Egyptian state envisions itself, it is neither revolutionary nor democratic. In fact, it is bereft of most forms of legitimacy, propping itself up almost entirely through its coercive apparatus.”

Header image: Illustration by Radia Durrani

The writer is a journalist interested in security and foreign policies. He tweets @ejazhaider

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 16th, 2023