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Morsi, Benazir: some parallels

July 27, 2012

PAKISTAN and Egypt have never been genuine friends, and there were moments when their relationship was adversarial.

During the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser — so hurt he was by Pakistan’s position on the Suez Canal nationalisation and its membership of US-led military pacts — Egypt was invariably on the wrong side in all international fora. Z. A. Bhutto removed the distortion in Pakistan’s Arab policy by going out to the republican camp and making friends with those who then were Arab heroes — Yasser Arafat, Hafez al-Assad, Anwar Saadat, Moammar Qadhafi and Houari Boumedienne. Today, however, our focus is on the domestic situation in the two countries, for one can detect certain parallels in political and constitutional developments, with secularists and Islamists cast in opposite roles. In both cases, a military addicted to govern is prepared to accept change only when it is made a co-sharer of power.

For Egypt, the benchmark year will be 2011, when Hosni Mubarak’s ouster meant the end of nearly six decades of the military-led secular leadership; for Pakistan, the key year is 1988, when Ziaul Haq’s death saw the beginning of a struggle that has continued till this day. Just as the Zia remnants had collaborators, so Field Marshal Mohammad Hussain Tantawi today has plenty of quislings.

In Egypt, power has rested with the military since the Naguib-Nasser duo overthrew King Farouk this month 60 years ago, with the country becoming the fountain-head of Nasser’s left-learning, secular Arab nationalism. In contrast, Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in power following Anwar Saadat’s assassination merely meant a continuation of Nasser’s secular philosophy without his charisma and his fiercely independent foreign policy. Instead, Mubarak turned his country almost into a vassal state in which the main aim of his foreign policy was to stay on Israel’s right side and receive the annual $1.5 billion grant from America. More regretfully, all along his rule, such an important Arab country as Egypt played no significant role in advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process. The resentment against his authoritarianism and corruption led to his overthrow in February 2011 and to the completion in phases of Egypt’s first truly fair parliamentary elections a year later. The Muslim Brotherhood scored a double win. First it won the largest bloc of seats in the assembly, and, second, its candidate, Mohammad Morsi, defeated Mubarak’s prime minister Ahmad Shafik in the presidential election run-off.

Now we are witness to a drama we have been quite familiar with, for instead of transferring power to the Egyptian people’s representatives, the ruling military, led by Field Marshal Tantawi, is dragging its feet in a manner that reminds Pakistanis of the post-Zia leadership’s pusillanimous behaviour in the aftermath of the 1988 general election. On June 14, the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (Scaf) dissolved the newly elected assembly because the Supreme Constitutional Court had held the elections illegal. Because the mode of elections was not uniform, and in some constituencies voting had been held on the basis of proportional representation, the court took the extraordinary step of declaring the entire assembly illegal, thus nullifying the Egyptian people’s democratic gains.

Scaf then did one better. Precisely the day the second phase of the presidential election was completed, it issued a decree arming itself with absolute powers, including the right to legislate. On July 1, Mr Morsi took the oath of office — not in parliament or the presidential palace but in the constitutional court — to become Egypt’s firstly freely elected president but without any powers. Without a parliament, Morsi would not be able to fulfil the promises he had made to his people and push forward his legislative agenda, nor will he be able to control the national coffers, because the generals have made it clear: (1) budget-making would be none of Morsi’s business, (2) he would not be the supreme commander of the armed forces, which as president he should be, and (3) he would have no powers to oversee military affairs.

The politico-constitutional crisis then escalated: on July 8, Morsi ordered the assembly to meet in spite of the dissolution, and on July 10 the SCC promptly declared Morsi’s action illegal. Whether the meeting of the minds between the constitutional court and Scaf was coincidental or otherwise we do not know. But an extraordinary spirit of camaraderie seems to guide the judges and the remnants of the Mubarak regime.

In 1988, Benazir Bhutto, whose party had secured a plurality of National Assembly seats, was the last to be called by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan for consultations on government formation. Together with Mirza Aslam Beg, of Mehrangate fame, and the ISI lot, GIK was not prepared to part with Zia’s hideous legacy and hand over power to where it belonged — the people’s representative. As with Morsi, so with Benazir, power came with conditionalities — (1) the elected prime minister would have nothing to do with foreign affairs; (2) she would read about Kahuta only in newspapers; (3) the foreign minister would be chosen by the GIK-army-ISI clique, and (4) they reminded Benazir that brother representatives of Afghan mujahideen would be far more comfortable in their company rather in the company of the Islamic world’s first woman prime minister. Twenty months later, egged on by the generals, GIK dismissed her government and dissolved the assembly, using the infamous Zia-gifted article 58-2b. When she challenged the decision, the verdict highlighted the same meeting of minds between the court and Gen Aslam Beg as Egypt’s constitutional court is now having with Field Marshal Tantawi.

Other things remaining equal, Morsi’s government is unlikely to last long. A dictator can function without a parliament, but it will be interesting to see how a civilian president can work without a legislature. The Islamists and the secularists are now cast in different roles in the two countries, which in spite of being brotherly have never been truly friendly.