Saturday, June 02, 2007

Banana Republic

How often does one hear the phrase "XYZ is at a crossroads"? I would say a lot. Well, loyal readers, do not despair - I will not be using said phrase here. For one thing, I harbor an intense distaste for cliches. For another, the subject matter of today's post - our very own Pakistan - is no longer at a crossroads. It passed that stage a while ago. It is my belief that our country is now on an inexorable path toward a breaking point, which will constitute one of two outcomes: (1) a massive and violent clampdown by the military on civil society, the likes of which Pakistan has not seen since 1971 or (2) the forcible overthrow of military rule. I will explain my reasons for this belief shortly, but before we get there, let's have a recap of the last ten weeks.

According to the Friday Times, some time during the first week of March, the heads of two intelligence agencies - my guess would be the ubitquitous ISI and perhaps MI - visited Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The Chief Justice served them a typical high tea: samosas, pastries, cake, sandwiches and, of course, chai. At the meeting, the intelligence officers urged the Chief Justice to resign, and promised him that our Great Leader General Pervez Musharraf would grant him the ambassadorship to any city not named Washington or London if he "did the right thing". The Chief Justice heard them out and did not comment, and continued to talk about the mundane, including the weather. The intelligence officers were not discouraged, and turned the discussion to the weather in various European capitals. Eventually, ostensibly in an effort to tackle the issue head on, the Chief Justice said he would hand in his resignation to the President personally. Satisfied with their day's work, the intelligence officials set up a meeting date between the President and the Chief Justice: March 9th.

On that fateful day, Musharraf (in his army fatigues) told Chaudhry about the charges against him, including those of corruption and nepotism, and asked for his resignation. Chaudhry denied the claims, protested his innocence, and said that he would not resign. When Musharraf left the room, the heads of the ISI, MI and IB all attempted to pressure the Chief Justice to resign. When he refused, the head of MI reportedly told him, "This is a bad day. Now you are taking a separate way and you are informed that you have been restrained from working as a judge of the Supreme Court or the Chief Justice of Pakistan." Sure enough, Musharraf "suspended" the Chief Justice and rendered him "non-functional," even though under the laws of the constitution, the President has no right to do so, let alone the Army chief. In addition, the Chief Justice was not allowed to enter the Supreme Court building and was placed under virtual house arrest for the next few days with his telephone, internet and television access cut off.

Demonstrations and protests against Musharraf's actions started almost immediately. Though these rallies were initially only of and by lawyers and judges, political parties soon joined the fray. The protests and rallies grew in size and, conjunctionally, so did Musharraf's agitation at the entire episode. Don't politicise a legal issue, he thundered (Hey,'re the one who legalized a political issue. Stop telling people they shouldn't be mixing questions of law and politics). Soon enough, the issue had attracted so much support that a three hour drive from Islamabad to Lahore took the Chief Justice more than a day simply because there were so many people on the road in support of him and his cause. This was the first week of May.

I won't get into what happened in Karachi the next weekend. Those tragic events have been covered in depth on this blog already (NB posted the day before the killings; Ali Kabir and I did so the day after). What has passed under the radar, relatively speaking, was the targeted killing of Hammad Raza. At approximately 4:10 a.m. on Monday, May 14th, four men approached Raza’s house in the quiet G-10/2 neighborhood of Islamabad. They broke into his house, and made their way to his bedroom. Raza and his wife, Shabana, were getting ready for Fajr prayers when they heard a series of loud knocks on their door. Not wanting the noise to wake his elderly father up, Raza ran to the door and opened it. As soon as he came face to face with the intruders, he was shot in the temple. The four men fled immediately, and his wife's cries for help to the police patrol in the area went unheard as the assailants escaped. Raza was 37.

Why was Raza killed? It later emerged that the intelligence agencies were looking to dig up dirt on Chaudhry and looked to Raza to give them what they wanted. Seeing as how Raza was the additional registrar of the Supreme Court and good friend of Chaudhry, there were few more likely resources for the intelligence agencies than him. Only one problem: despite repeated requests and threats, Raza refused to cooperate. He paid for that mistake with his life.

Before we go on in this sordid and morbid story, just take a pause to consider what happened with Raza. The government essentially took out a hit on a member of the judiciary. Our government, in other words, has started to behave like the Mafia. If they have a problem with someone, they will either pick them up and make them disappear - as various journalists have found out - or will simply kill them and try to (disingenuously) make it look like a robbery or accident - as Raza found out. I cannot emphasize this enough: our government is behaving like the Mafia. They kill and imprison people they don't like. Our devolution to a full-blown Banana Republic is now complete.

While pressure on the military has continued to mount, it has reacted in the only way it can: with bumbling force. I woke up today to the news that the country's corps commanders met and released an ominous statement, including sentences like "Any attempt by a small minority to obstruct the aspirations of vast majority would only derail the nation from its path of progress and prosperity" and that it has taken "serious note of the malicious campaign against Institutions of State, launched by vested interests and opportunists who were acting as obstructionist forces to serve their personal interests and agenda even at the cost of flouting the rule of law". In addition, the military government has banned Aaj Tv and ARY from telecasting live feeds, in obvious retaliation for private media's coverage of the Chief Justice's speech a few days ago. It also forced Ayesa Siddiqa, author of the newly released Military Inc, to find a new place for the launching of her book by "convincing" the Islamabad Club that affording her the use of their auditorium was not a great idea. Hmm, I wonder what the military is so afraid of? Could it be that Siddiqa, in the first systematic and academic study of the extent of the military's tentacles in Pakistan's economy, has found the military is playing around with Rs. 200 billion in business and commercial dealings?

As I said earlier in this post, I believe Pakistan is now on an inexorable path toward a breaking point, which will result in either a massive and violent clampdown by the military or a fundamental shift in the power structure of the state. Simply put, a middle ground - if one ever existed - is no longer possible. I say this for two primary reasons. One, Pakistan's civil society has never been as united as it is now, and it seems to have finally become fed up with a military-dominated setup. All the major political parties, with the exception of the MQM, which isn't really a national party anyway, are on board. In the past, military regimes have been able to play off one foe against another, and practiced the old "divide-and-rule" strategy perfectly. It may have even worked this time, except Musharraf's callousness vis-a-vis Karachi on May 12th has ensured the PPP wants nothing to do with it any longer. Combined with the the leadership of a wide array of political parties (and it really is an array, with differing ideological, ethnic and class based parties joined at the hip), is a groundswell of public opinion swaying with the Chief Justice. This includes political activists, NGO types, lawyers, judges, the middle class and, most importantly, the independent media. This united front, all ostensibly with the same aim - the Army's exit from politics - means that it will be much more difficult for them to take no for an answer. Not without a fight, anyway.

The second reason for my belief that we are headed to a breaking point is that the military will do whatever it takes to stay in power. And I really do mean "whatever it takes". I remember talking to someone who worked for the Pakistan Embassy in Washington in the summer of 2005. Said person will remain nameless, but suffice it to say, he knew what he was talking about. Said person told me, and I quote, "The only thing the military is concerned with is staying in power. That's all they care about, and they'll do anything to make sure it happens." And this was in 2005, when there were no viable threats to the regime. Does anyone doubt that this fact is still true now? The government has already shown its willingness to imprison, torture, and kill innocent citizens if it believes said imprisonment, torture, or killing will help it. It has already shown its willingness to muzzle the press, with legal, verbal and physical attacks on various media outlets in the last few weeks. Most importantly, it has shown it is not afraid of escalation. One psychotic incident after another, the military has raised the stakes. Firing the Chief Justice? Let's do it. Didn't work out as planned? Let's attack the press and intimidate political opponents. Didn't work out as planned? Let's ensure carnage in Karachi and pin it on the Chief Justice and his supporters. Didn't work out as planned? Let's release a ridiculous statement after a meeting of the corps commanders, and try to bully people into shutting up. Let us remember that about thirty six years ago, our military felt no compunction in raping women, killing intellectuals and dissidents, and waging war on its own people only because of its incessant power hungriness. The result was the dismemberment of our country.

So what does this mean? The obvious answer is that when both sides have invested so much, only one side can win. So the more pertinent question might be: how might each side win? The anti-military forces might win by ratcheting up the pressure on Musharraf and the military to such an intolerable degree that, combined with continued U.S. disapproval of our government's efficacy in dealing with the Taliban problem, he faces no choice but to withdraw both himself and the military from politics. This last point is an important one. Anger at the military has gotten to the point where a mere change of personality at the top is no longer going to cut it. If, as it's being rumoured, my namesake Ahsan Saleem Hayat takes over, the pro-democracy forces are unlikely to be placated. It's all or nothing. I think the opportunity to turn the screws on Musharraf will arise, at the earliest, this fall when Musharraf finally carries out his promise of being elected by the existing assemblies and/or rigs the elections in the PML-Q's favor. Such political controtions will, in my humble opinion, ensure a mass movement on the streets and corridors of power that has never been seen in Pakistan's history.

How might the military win? To win, the military will have to do the following. It will have to completely stifle the electronic and print media, to the point where any coverage of these grandstanding speeches by Chaudhry et al is fraught with danger, both professional and physical. It will have to send a violent message to protestors by killing and/or imprisoning people and thus force the protestors ask themselves a question they have yet to ask themselves: do we really want to be out here on the streets? It will have to target intellectuals, writers, and leaders of civil society like human rights activists and heads of NGOs so that the snake of public demonstrations loses its head. And it will have to maintain unity in the ranks: if the public and/or political elite senses any factionalization within the military, they will move in for the kill. The final issue might be the most difficult. Already, speculation is rife that some in the Army are preparing to pull the rug from under Musharraf's feet. How long will they hold their tongue and keep their guns in their holsters, so to speak? Only time will tell.

I'll close with this sobering thought: I'm just twenty three years old, so this may not count for all that much, but I don't ever remember Pakistan in as acute a crisis as it is today. The centrifugal forces that can tear a country apart that our military elite have always been so fond of ascribing to India are actually omnipresent in the good old Land of the Pure today. Think about it: the rise of militant Islam, a rapidly growing population, trouble on our Western border, the low-level civil war in Balochistan, inflation, corruption, and, of course, the ongoing Chief Justice/military issue. This has the potential to end really, really badly and what's worse is that people like you and me can see it coming from a mile away. Unfortunately that's what everyone said about Karachi on May 11th and, well, I think we all remember how that one turned out.


Teeth Maestro said...

A very good and balanced write up, I join you word for word in the questions you ask at the end about what needs to be done for the future of our country

NB said...

Kinda agree bro. But i think your calling it a little too soon, or maybe a quite a bit too soon, (and drasic). I sincerely doubt that people getting bumped off is something new. I personally think the country will see it past this crisis. The destination your talking about maybe indeed be something were headed towards, but in my view its a fair bit further down the road than you seem to suggest.

The Pakistani Spectator said...

good write up, true indeed

The Pakistani Spectator