Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Conversation With Dawn Editorial Writer And Op-Ed Columnist Cyril Almeida

Over the last few days, Dawn editorial writer and op-ed columnist Cyril Almeida has been kind enough to exchange a bunch of emails with yours truly. We talked about the job description of an op-ed columnist, the state of journalism in Pakistan, the performance of the Zardari government thus far, the Swat/Taliban war, Brigadier Imtiaz and his many recent pronouncements, and the MQM. Without further ado...

Ahsan: Hi Cyril,

Thank you for agreeing to do this. I'm sure our readers will appreciate it as much as I do.

First things first. Your profile on your webpage says you studied law at university. Why would you give up a lucrative career in law to write op-ed pieces? All my lawyer friends in Pakistan like their life (at most times) and very few of my journalist friends in Pakistan like their life (at most times). What gives?

Cyril: Thanks, Ahsan. Happy to be here answering, or try to answer, whatever questions you have.

Seems to me that maybe you know very successful lawyers and not-so-successful journalists, but even then I would question whether lawyers enjoy their lives (as opposed to their work, or the lucrativeness thereof) more than journalists.

After doing a second BA in England, I returned to Pakistan to practice law, finding a place at a small firm in Karachi. A year and change later, I had serious doubts about whether I wanted to be in the profession 10, 15, 20 years down the road.

I still enjoy law as a subject, but the practice of law is a very different, dare I say, deadening, experience for the most part.

Opting out at such an early stage was really on the basis of how the arc of a legal career works in Pakistan - you pay your dues, slogging away for two, three, four years on a pittance, then you enter the 'decent compensation' bracket and stay there for a while long before getting to partake in the lucrativeness.

Because of that arc, the 'cost' of opting out gets higher and higher the longer you stay in the profession - I mean, who would spend 6-8 years of their lives with their eyes firmly set on the future and then, just when the real pay-off starts, opt out? Not many.

So having doubts about the profession generally, I realised it was relatively less painful to leave early on, rather than be stuck doing something I didn't enjoy for the rest (or a major chunk) of my life.

Since enjoying what I do forms a large part of my decision on what I choose to do (call it old fashioned, idealistic, plain stupid, whatever), the media was something I was attracted to.

I enjoy politics, political history, trying to make sense of where the country is headed, etc. and I like writing, so it eventually became a no-brainer.

Not many people know this, but the column is actually something I do on my own time.

My job at Dawn is to write the paper's editorials on national politics, regional affairs/foreign policy and the economy sometimes - that's what I do five, six, sometimes seven days a week.

So I essentially get paid to do what would be a hobby otherwise, to do so having access to all the intellectual resources that the Dawn name brings, and then put my thoughts out there for what is without doubt, at least to my mind, the largest informed domestic and foreign audience interested in knowing what is happeing in the country - how's that for a great life?

Moreover, I have no office hours, I can write from any part of the country or the world, I can spend my day just reading, I meet interesting people - need I go on?

Ahsan: Do you feel a sense of having influence, or perhaps less ambitiously, being on thinking people's radar? You say that you enjoy putting your "thoughts out there for what is without doubt, at least to my mind, the largest informed domestic and foreign audience interested in knowing what is happening in the country". As vulnerable you may feel in answering this question, do you think your opinion matters? On the one hand, as you imply, the movers and shakers read Dawn. But on the other hand, English newspapers' circulation numbers in Pakistan are extremely low relative to the entire population; they are restricted mainly to the English speaking elite in the major urban centers of the country, and even then, the numbers would divided in half, with one half going to The News and the other Dawn (no one outside the Taseer family reads the Daily Times, I don't think). Do you feel a sense of frustration that as hard as you work on your stuff, very few people actually end up reading it? Or is that tempered by that feeling of influence referenced earlier?

Cyril: Influence? If you're in it for the influence, then you're half way up the wrong tree already.

Part of the problem I have with many of the big players out here is that they've stopped being observers and, for all intents and purposes, consider themselves part of the political system. Making the news, shaping the news - how about just being an observer?

Of course, I'm on the opinion side of things, so that means interpreting things and giving my, subjective, opinion.

But on Dawn's pages alone there are four writers every day, which means 28 opinions each week. (An oped columnist/contributor is published only once a week on the opinion pages.)

Multiply that by the other national English dailies (I read DT every day, and there is also The Nation, which many forget) and you can see how your voice is just one of many, many people's.

I don't write for the sake of addressing the subjects of my pieces, I write for the readers - people like myself who are just interested in knowing what's going on, with no hidden agendas, no personal favourites, who don't see too much evil or too much good in any situation or person or institution.

Does my opinion matter to readers - that's for them to decide.

Frankly, I think readers don't give themselves enough credit - they're incredibly sharp and discerning (at least on the English side) and if you're rubbish, they'll let you know you're rubbish by ignoring you pretty quickly.

As for papers in English being only a small part of the newspaper market - yes, and that's before you even begin to look towards the vastly bigger tv audience.

But what are you going to do about it? If you grew up in Liechtenstein, would you wring your hands over your irrelevance for the rest of your life? I don't think so.

Besides, as I mentioned, the quality of the average reader of an English paper is better.

So there are trade-offs, but since none of them are under my control, I don't think about them too much.

Ahsan: That's a fair and reasonable way of thinking about things, I think. Though I think you majorly pissed off our readers from Liechtenstein, who tend to be very avid followers of our coverage of Swiss politics.

Last question on journalism. If you were given Overlord powers, and you could change one thing about print journalism and the way it is practiced in Pakistan, what would it be? The rules for this question are: there are no unintended consequences to any of your decisions; you can't make infinite changes with the wording of the response (i.e. no "If I had one wish, it would be that I have unlimited wishes" cheating); and finally that no one will know you are personally responsible (so aggrieved parties can't run after you with pitchforks).

Cyril: First of all, my sincere apologies to readers from Liechtenstein - I'm sure they are good people, the best even, and I didn't mean to knock them at all.

Simple: I'd pay better and have more people and better resources.

Part of the problem with print journalism - and here I'm speaking of the English papers particularly - is that it draws its talent from a rather narrow and shallow pool. If you pay a subber or fresh reporter 20k and promise him perhaps double that in 3 years if they're good, you're not going to attract the most educated, the most capable - the ones who can connect the dots, see a bigger picture, etc.

That's not to say that there aren't terrific reporters and in-house staffers at the papers - there absolutely are - but it's a question of how many and how often you can find a solid employee who can get the job done at a high level of competence day in and day out across the various tiers of a newspaper hierarchy.

Perhaps the industry suffers from the seth culture syndrome or perhaps the right person hasn't appeared yet who can keep the business reasonably profitable AND raise its quality at the same time, but there's a lot of room for improvement.

Collectively, I'd argue that the big four national dailies and, a personal favourite of mine, the Business Recorder can keep a reader terrifically well informed - the problem is that no single paper manages to do that to a degree that is comfortable for someone to say, I read XYZ paper for three months and I know all there is to know about the issues that are of interest in the country right now.

So yes, better - better paid, better educated, better informed, better writers, better reporters - that's what I'd want and I think part of the answer is better pay right from the start.

Talent follows money - it doesn't have to be outrageous sums, just tempting enough to make a swathe of young English-speaking adults weight it as a genuine career option.

Papers are in the information business and, at the end of the day, a paper is only as good as the people it has.

Ahsan: Here's how I would have answered my question: fire people for making shit up. I'm not going to name names (but I will say they sound a lot like "Kamid Nir"), but I'm amazed how many times I read stuff in newspapers which are simply untrue, or simply cannot be true. They just make it up! How can this be allowed to happen? I'm all for reading fiction, but not in newspapers.

A close second would be not giving credence to ridiculously idiotic opinions as if they matter. No more asking A.Q. Khan for his opinion on matters of national security. If you're that desperate for a quote, you're in the wrong business. No more asking for Sarfraz Nawaz on Younis Khan's captaincy. To be fair, this problem is not endemic to Pakistani journalism. Sarah Palin had a nonsensical op-ed in the Washington Post a couple months ago on...wait for it...climate change. At the time, a blogger I read regularly had this to say:
After all, why does Sarah Palin have an op-ed on climate legislation in the Washington Post? Does she have scientific expertise? Economic expertise? Knowledge of the state of international climate negotiations?

Perhaps during her brief time in the public spotlight she developed a reputation for an unusually solid grasp of complicated policy details? Or is the idea that she’s known for being honest? A good-faith participant in public policy debates?

Well, no.
The basic point is, don't blame Sarah Palin. Blame the WaPo. Put differently, don't hate the player. Hate the game. It's high-school politics masquerading as journalistic balance -- trying to get names and glitz and glamour when all we really need as readers of newspapers is a set of basic facts that are true. We, as readers, will take it from there, thanks.

Coming in with the bronze medal for me would be your suggestion. I agree that print journalists are paid like crap, and if we want better journalism, we should get better journalists, and the only to do that is to pay them more. Particularly since the electronic journalism market is fairly deeply embedded in our culture, and they pay their people so much more -- for work not nearly as important, I would argue -- it really skews the incentives from a social welfare point of view.

Let's move on to a subject near and dear to both our hearts: politics.

Your recent columns have betrayed a sense of cautious optimism on the direction of the country. A couple of weeks ago, you wrote:
The macroeconomic indicators have stabilised; inflation is down; the power crisis will ease now that summer is over; suicide bombings are down; a degree of normality is returning to Swat; Baitullah Mehsud is dead and his headquarters in South Waziristan is under siege; the judicial crisis is over; a truce, albeit an uneasy one, is holding in Punjab; the American demands to ‘do more’ against the Taliban are muted; drone strikes are less of a political hot potato; relations with India are edging towards a post-Mumbai phase; parliament is upping its legislative activity — it’s not quite singing-in-the-rain happy, but neither is it the nightmare that was Pakistan in 2007 and 2008.

My question to you would be: is this a bit of an accident, or does President Zardari and his team actuall deserve credit for this? And if the answer is "neither", are there any set of actors whose role you would particularly highlight? Or is that simply the wrong way of looking at things -- that is, we really shouldn't be looking at particular people, but rather particular events and contingent outcomes that have led to this relative stabilization?

Cyril: The bronze position - if effected - would, to my mind, fix the silver and gold problems to a large degree - you'd have less idiotic opinions and people wouldn't make stuff up as much.

Ah yes, politics - the country's real national sport.

First, and this is by no means a wriggle, I think its important to define what merits credit.

Start with the obvious - doing nothing isn't an option. Even at the worst times in Pakistan's history, a government couldn't be charged with doing absolutely nothing about anything. The executive is enormous and the government that heads it at any given time also large - as we rightly complain. So, something somewhere will always get done.

The question, then, is really about zooming out, identifying the big issues and then trying to figure out who deserves credit for what.

There were three big crises that the government had to confront following the February 2008 elections: militancy, the economy and a crisis of governance and politics.

Take just one: the economy. The government has taken some brave, very unpopular steps, by rolling back subsidies, particularly on power, and imposing some fiscal discipline (yes, there are wastages, colossal in the eyes of the common man, but they foreign junkets, large cabinets, etc. don't add up to much in percentage terms in the, and I stress, short term). And they have got money from IFIs when we were absolutely desperate (though the militancy issue and our relevance in that fight helped a fair bit).

But the handling of the power crisis has been poor and the rental power solution may break some of the banks down the road and make electricity too expensive for businesses to afford; they took too long to bring stability to the finance ministry (we had three different advisers in the space of months and the office of secretary finance was tossed back and forth between two individuals in a bizarre turf battle); the implementation of the BISP has left much to be desired (Kaiser Bengali's plan, despite its detractors, seemed decent to me, but inevitably ownership was transferred to politicians, and that has created its own problems) - same with other emergency social protection schemes; the tax burden is as skewed as ever despite them having a year to plan the new budget, etc.

So a very mixed bag - overall, I'd give them a C. Painful steps have been taken, yes, but it's hard to avoid the impression that they were inevitable and would have been forced through by anyone else in the same position - and there is the fact that they done little that is 'good' from a long-term perspective. Give them some points though for not royally screwing up.

Ahsan: I think your last sentence pretty much sums up the level of expectations for our leaders. I would agree with your grade of C, with the addendum that it used to be an F until, say, the one-year mark of the February elections. I think the war going better is a bit of an accident in the sense that the urge to actually fight was only ignited by the Buner-incursion of the TTP; if they (the TTP) had been satisfied with biding their time, the Army would have continued to sit on their heels, the government would have continued to sign over swathes of Pakistani territory, and we would have all been filled with this terrible sense of foreboding. In the end, they were quite lucky that the Taliban showed themselves to be as unreliable as signatories can be, and public support for actually fighting the war picked up. But -- Hussain Haqqani's claims on the Daily Show notwithstanding -- I am not prepared to grant that this was all part of a master plan.

On the economy front, I'm disturbed that there seems to be little long-term thinking on the problems of power and electricity; though I do recall reading about a week ago that the Bhasha dam is now in the news again. Whether or not its plans are consigned to the dustbin of history owing to provincial and ethnic divisions a la the Kalabagh dam -- as I deem likely -- will only be revealed in the future. And I suppose American promises of help on this issue can do little harm, though you never know with us.

I want to get your views on a couple of very specific issues. What are your thoughts on Jinnahpur-gate?

Cyril: Re Swat. If there was a master plan, this wasn't it (regardless of what the army and its acolytes say behind the scenes). The turning point was really Sufi Mohammad's speech on the grassy ground where he denounced everything and anything, other than himself and his followers of course, as kafir and un-Islamic.

The whole thing had been arranged by the government for him to call on Fazlullah to disarm and to support the government's writ - but, legend has it, he played the 'wrong' tape instead over the microphones, one of his old speeches in which he, well, denounced everything and everything other than himself and his followers.

So there was a plan - just not the one we've seen unfold since then.

Jinnahpur - wow, a crazy one. I've written Dawn's editorials on it and related matters and the big question, to my mind and others whose opinions I hold in high esteem, is the question of timing - why now?

No one seems sure yet (and let this be another lesson in unintended consequences when you unleash loose cannons on the electronic media), but I'm not convinced it has more to do with Musharraf and less with Zardari.

Could it be a ploy to push the PPP and PML-N further apart so that constitutional amendments are off the table again? Who benefits most from the status quo? You do the math.

Ahsan: On the turning point of the war front, I'd say there were three factors. In no particular order, they were the anti-democracy, anti-everything speech you reference (though I have to admit, I've never heard of the "wrong tape" theory on this); the Buner incursion, and -- don't laugh -- the Taliban-beating-the-girl video as well as the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers. I really think the last two episodes had a real galvanizing effect on the population. Now, you may argue that public support has mattered little to the military in its various adventures in the past, and I would agree with you. But I really think those two key moments provided focal points around which the entire country coalesced, and gave momentum toward an armed struggle. That's how I saw it.

On to Jinnahpurgate or rather, Brig. Imtiaz-gate. Perhaps some of our readers might not be fully aware of the situation, so let me provide some details here. If you think I miss something important, please fill in the gaps, or correct me. I then want to make a comment about what this episode says about our political culture and our society writ large.

In the very recent past -- I would say two weeks -- a certain Brigadier Imtiaz (and Naseer Akhtar, no doubt) has fed a media frenzy with some interesting revelations. Brig. Imtiaz was a fairly key player in the military-intelligence establishment during the 1980s and early 1990s. He has made the following claims:

1. During the Zia era in the 1980s, the ISI used, shall we say, extrajudicial measures to clamp down on left-wing groups, trade unions, labor unions and other admittedly bit players in an anti-socialist/secular crusade. Torture, "disappearances" and even murder was common. These claims by Brig. Imtiaz surprise no one; we all knew this already.

2. During the end of Zia's era and the Benazir's first term, the ISI and the military used millions of publicly funded rupees to finance an anti-Benazir coalition, the IJI, of which Nawaz Sharif was the most recognizable symbol. When this campaign failed, and BB actually got elected, they did everything possible to undermine her government, and refused to let her get her hands on Afghan policy, Kashmir policy and nuclear weapons policy. These claims by Brig. Imtiaz surprise no one; we all knew this already.

3. In 1992, as a purported casus belli to launch a military operation against the MQM, the military-intelligence establishment claimed to have found maps of "Jinnahpur", meant to be a separate homeland for Mohajirs, at the headquarters and offices of the MQM. The idea was to demonstrate that the MQM was a treasonous party, wanted secession, and thus had to be dealt with by force -- which they eventually were, in operations where thousands of MQM activists and workers were killed in fake encounters. We are now told from the horse's mouth that there were no such maps, that they were fabricated by IB (another intelligence agency, dealing more with domestic matters), and, as usual, that it was all a load of crap designed only to malign the MQM. Moreover, the claim is made that then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif knew everything there was to know about these plans, and had no problems with them. These claims by Brig. Imtiaz surprise no one; we all knew this already.

Now, these revelations have to be taken with the context that Nawaz Sharif and the PML(N) are, today, very stridently pushing to try former President Musharraf for treason.


The revelations, such as they are, are thought to be accomplishing the following:

1. Reminding people that Nawaz Sharif is no angel, that his role as champion of democracy and freedom and non-interference from the military is a very new one, and that he had no problems accepting money from the ISI to fight against Benazir's election campaign first, and her government second. Moreover, it is meant to show he had little compunction in using force to deal with political opponents domestically.

2. That there is a lot of dirty laundry within Pakistani politics, and if one man goes down for his crimes (Musharraf), there's plenty more where that came from. So those who are pushing for so-called accountability should be careful.

So the conventional wisdom is that this is all a ruse designed by Musharraf, sitting safely in England as we speak, and his minions to ward off the prospect of a trial. But as you point out, it's not the only theory. Your theory says that it is more about Zardari than Musharraf and domestic political alignments; I don't want to put words in your mouth, so maybe our readers will benefit from an explicit account of what you think is going on, and whether it's orchestrated from one actor or not.

I do want to make one general point though.

More than most places, Pakistan has struggled to come to terms with its past. I am not talking about admitting to war crimes (in East Pakistan in 1971) as a society like, say, the Germans have. I am not talking about specific episodes that drift in and out of the public consciousness like the ISI-backed IJI and the role Nawaz Sharif played. I am not talking about partition, and how the entire country is still divided on what Jinnah wanted for us (secularism or not, for example), or why partition happened in the first place (you'd be amazed at the extent to which the academic historical literature is divided on this question).

No, what I am referring to is the fact that we don't even agree on what happened. Most disagreements in the political sphere in other countries focus on what implications to draw from certain events. So after World War I, some Germans thought that being the most powerful country in Europe was a fool's errand, and that trying to accomplish it militarily was impossible, whereas other Germans thought the only mistake they made was giving up too soon, and that if the politicians hadn't betrayed the military, they would have succeeded (the first group was right, the second one ended up in power in the 1930s -- and we know how that turned out). But all Germans agreed they lost the war.

With us, it's completely different. We can't deal with our past because we don't have a common set of understandings from which respectful disagreements arise. Nawaz Sharif and his party have almost literally forgotten the late 1980s and early 1990s. The MQM simply pretends it's not a thuggish party and hasn't been responsible for hundreds of killings, extortion, bribery, and other assorted crimes in Karachi. The PPP actually thinks Benazir was liberal democracy personified. It's not a matter of differing opinions. It's a matter of different facts. Different histories. It's almost like we were subjected to 170 million different history books in school. Everyone's in their own world.

I don't know if I'm making sense. But this whole controversy has given me this sensation, which I've often felt in the past, that we as Pakistanis will go nowhere, and not learn from our past, until we actually agree on what the past actually was.

Cyril: I'd add more, but it's mostly there in Wednesday's leader in Dawn and I will be fleshing it out some more this Friday in my own piece.

About the operation against the MQM during the first Nawaz govt, I'd add there were at least two other big players involved: the president, GIK, and the army chief, Asif Nawaz.

It is enormously complex and messy and we can't be completely sure of what exactly happened on the basis of the current evidence in the public domain - which is precisely the problem you referred to: that we don't ever seem to know anything more than rudimentary facts, if that.

Frankly, in all this nonsense the one sensible (!) suggestion has been Altaf Husain's: form a truth and reconciliation committee and investigate the allegations - and all other controversies, I say.

There is so much that's happened between the various parties that until they sit down and bury some of the ghosts from the past they will never be a match for the establishment/undemocratic forces' divide-and-rule strategy.

Wrap your head around this: the MQM and PMLN are feuding over something that happened in the first Sharif term but they were in govt together again during his second term! And during the PPP's second term in the '90s the MQM was crushed even more violently than in the Sharif crackdown - and now those two parties are back in government together!

So clearly they can work with each other despite brutal histories, but what they can't seem to do is work with each other for more than few months (or a year or so at most) or eschew dirty tricks when not seeing eye-to-eye.

So, maybe if there is some national catharsis of sorts for these parties - a process that will show the world and each other that none of them have clean hands and how often they've been manipulated by the establishment for its own interests - they may learn to genuinely trust each other.

That doesn't mean they have to agree on policies and issues - we're not talking a post-politics phase - but it does mean they may learn to abide by the rules of the game of electoral politics conducted within a constitutional framework.

Will it definitely work? Who knows. But we've tried everything else - maybe it's time we try the warm-and-fuzzy option. We could be in for a pleasant, nay radical, surprise.

The dangers in not trying to change course is apparent today and in your question - AZ and NS potentially embarking on another bitter round of fighting that could dangerously destablise the system again, and all triggered by dragging up ghosts from the early '90s.

A truth and reconciliation process would at least deprive the politicians of some of the weapons they periodically use to inflict damage on each other and, inevitably, themselves.

Ahsan: One of the things that struck me during this whole imbroglio, which you alluded to, was that the MQM has been one of the most flexible parties in Pakistan's political history. They've been with and against every major political actor in the country at one time or another -- the PPP, the PMLN, the military. I don't think that true of any other major player. And as you say, it's quite funny (in a tragicomic sense of the term) that it was the PPP government in Benazir's second term that actually confronted them head-on and brought Karachi to a standstill, and it's the PPP's feudal politics that earn the MQM's greatest ire, and yet the political and cosmic forces have aligned such that it is the PMLN facing the MQM's umbrage right now, while the MQM sits happily in a quasi-alliance with the PPP.

Now that we're talking about them, I want to hear your thoughts on the MQM. I have never actually heard anyone not affiliated with the MQM say anything even remotely positive about the party. This is understandable on a number of levels -- the violence, the Don-ism of Altaf Hussain, the needless prickliness, and the ability to basically stop Karachi in its tracks if it chooses to.

But I find myself wondering if the MQM is not unfairly treated in the public discourse. The other day, I was having dinner with a bunch of Pakistanis I've recently started playing organized cricket with. They represent what I would say is a fairly wide swathe of the Pakistani population -- from electrical engineers to techies to people who grew up poor in the outskirts of Murree and are now driving cabs in Chicago. The subject of the MQM came up, and I chose to tread carefully given my experiences discussing them in the past. The basic argument that was proffered, collectively, was that the MQM would never win any votes if it weren't for its violence and extortion.

As a student of politics, I find that desperately hard to believe. If parties only needed violence to win seats, then (a) everyone would be that violent, and (b) relatively peaceful parties would cease to exist. Clearly this is not the case. My opinion was that while the MQM has been historically violent, it has also been wronged by the state a number of times and that its organizational structure and its ability to respond to its constitutents in a timely and effective manner lead to its dominance in urban Sindh's electoral politics. I was met with guffaws.

My point is not necessarily to debate the merits and demerits of the MQM. Rather, I am interested in why the MQM doesn't actually divide opinion -- everyone agrees on its putative dastardliness. How, or why, is there such a one-sided picture of that party? To be clear, I've never voted for them, and I abhor their violence and thuggery. But surely there is more to the story? Why, more than other political entities in Pakistan, can people not recognize that about them?

Cyril: The MQM is a complex political animal.

It's genesis, conventional wisdom has it, lies in the bid by the security establishment to break the hold of the PPP in urban Sindh at least. True perhaps to an extent, but that doesn't tell you much about a party nearly 30 years on.

After all, Sharif was similarly nurtured by the army in the '80s, but look who he wants hanged today and at his troubles with earlier army chiefs in the '90s.

I'm told that people as eminent as Arif Hassan believed in the '90s that the MQM represented an urban political revolution - a positive revolution - led by second- and third-generation immigrants who were finally organising a growing middle class in urban Sindh.

Of course, history has turned out quite differently - though I'd argue that the party has two faces (real to a degree but often caricatureised/exaggerated): the thuggish, mafia-esque side and the cleaner, post-90s more acceptable political face.

One thing that does irk me about the party is its aggravated sense of victimhood. The MQM is always the sufferer in the imagination of its leaders. It is congenitally disliked by the establishment, it has enemies everywhere out to destroy it and it must constantly fend off threats of all sorts to its position.

True perhaps, but what you going to do about it? Nobody likes a whiner.

Recognise also the reality of the extent to which the party has consolidated its hold over Karachi and built up a formidable arsenal (real and metaphorical) over the last decade under Musharraf. It's preposterous. Forget victimhood, the MQM should be strutting like a peacock and have the swagger of a man who knows he's untouchable.

Though, in response to your cricketing friends' claims, I'd say it's a stretch to claim the MQM would not win a single seat - or vote - even if it had a 'cleaner' way of doing politics.

There were certainly questions about the way, say, Farooq Sattar won his seat in February 2008, but there were other seats won that were no-brainers.

And say what you will (though certainly not that tripe about fighting the impending 'Talibanisation' of Karachi), the MQM has secular credentials, or impulses at the very least.

Ahsan: I've always been endlessly fascinated by the MQM. Maybe this is because I grew up in Karachi in the 1990s, but they've always been super interesting to me. The internal contradictions (a highly decentralized and meritocratic party led by a man who has few living enemies), the political agendas (an intensely aggressive, some would say fascistic, secular and ethnic identity), the violence, the dalliances and distances with the military, the restriction to urban Sindh despite a model of politics that can easily be replicated elsewhere -- they're just a really interesting case study on so many levels.

I would agree that the victimhood thing is uber-annoying. I referred to it as needless prickliness in my email but I think the term "martyr complex" does a better job. Incidentally, they're hardly alone in this respect. I just finished reading Steve Coll's excellent book on South Asia from the early 90s, called On the Grand Trunk Road, and he devotes considerable space to both Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto seeing enemies everywhere, seeing half-baked conspiracies behind every closed door -- basically everything you just ascribed to the MQM in your email. If you haven't already read the book, I highly recommend it. And he's such a brilliant and engaging writer too.

I had a chance to read the editorial you wrote on the Brig. Imtiaz/PPP-PML(N) breakdown. I had a couple of questions to ask you about it, but then I decided against it given you'll probably deal with it in greater detail in your Friday column.

So let me ask a couple of personal questions before we wrap this up. Where do you see yourself going in the next ten years? Are you going to go the Ahmed Rashid route (write an investigative book, make a name for yourself in a particular field, and then make gazillions in talks and lectures on the think tank, university and DC circuit)? Are you going to go the Mohammad Hanif route (drift in and out of retirement, write a novel, chill with your kids)? Or, perhaps most entertainingly, are you going to go the Husain Haqqani route (make the right political friends, say the right things, end up in the right capitals of the world)?

Cyril: Ahmed Rashid - I'm not a reporter, so unlikely.

Hanif - I wouldn't know where to begin writing fiction. One of my more shameful secrets is that I know next to nothing about fiction - including his book, which I have yet to finish. He's too decent a chap to ever ask, so I've lost the fear of having to admit as much to him.

HH - bless the good ambassador (one of the lesser known things about the man is that he's a tireless worker) but I don't have, shall we say, his chameleon-like qualities or the ability to re-invent myself every few years.

Ten years from now? I'll settle for reasons to be less sceptical of this place, the direction it is headed in and the people who are trying to run it.

More likely though? Nursing a glass of regret.

Ahsan: Hahaha. On that entirely depressing note, let me thank you on behalf of our readers for your time. Keep writing your excellent columns and providing a clear-eyed view of our nutty country.

Cyril's columns come out every Friday in Dawn. His columns are conveniently archived on his website linked above.

For those interested, I had one of these public conversations a while ago with Mosharraf Zaidi, another op-ed columnist for a major national daily. Here's part one of that exchange and here's part two.


AKS said...

Terrific post.

On the topic of Lawyers v Journalists: I would give anything to be able to work from home, being at the office sucks (most Pakistani law offices are shabby) and being at the court can be even worse. I do love my work though. As for lucrativeness, the real money is in academia - tuition teachers are academics, right Ahsan?

karachi khatmal said...

really great peiece, although i feel that the differences between print and electronic journalism are quite stark hearing cyril talk about it.

but i loved the discussion on the mqm, really fascinating, and one tht only karachi-walas would probably care about.

Rabia said...

"It's genesis, conventional wisdom has it, lies in the bid by the security establishment to break the hold of the PPP in urban Sindh at least."

I'd love to read a full blog post on Rs. 5 about this bit of conventional wisdom. I think this is another one of those 'facts' that gets thrown around which are sort of irrational when you examine them closer (but of course no one does). The PPP never had much of a hold in urban Sindh to begin with, so this theory doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Faiza said...

Hahaha I love how the Liechenstein(ians?) have irrelevant lives! It is indeed why I thank God everyday for being born a Pakistani. Btw, Swiss politics is FASCINATING. You'd do well to cover it!

Kalsoom said...

Great interview - I love the format Ahsan! I follow Cyril's work, and got to meet him recently through a friend a few weeks ago in Islamabad. He's a super cool guy!

Anonymous said...

Like most journalists, Cyril comes across as a pleasant even knowledgeable fellow. Unfortunately, his writings are quite run off the mill. For a contrast read Mushahid Hussain's pieces from his hack days and you'll know what I mean.

Ali said...

Just sharing a link:

> Please read this to see the state of mind of some our experienced reporters...this piece is absolutely hilarious. It reads like a sidney sheldon novel.

Ali said...

*a horrible version of a sidney sheldon novel, of course.

Ahsan said...


Haha yes. Math teachers and econ teachers especially.


Yeah I agree. Since you have a blog, why don't you tackle it? Look at you, trying to add to my work load.


Are you being serious or not? I can't tell, mainly because I don't know anything about Switzerland.




Yeah, we covered that on Rs.5 a while ago:

Cy said...

Rabia: right you are. Too much conventional wisdom and too little serious analysis here. Instead of breaking the PPP's hold, how about a challenger to the PPP's dominance?

Remember also that the Zia's love affair with the JI - again conventional wisdom has it that it was something to behold - faded and he needed other allies in Sindh.

Anonymous: like I said, it's for the readers to decide what they make of what I write. You didn't have to hide behind an 'anonymous' cloak to say that I'm run of the mill - you, whoever you are, are perfectly entitled to an opinion.

Rabia said...

"Remember also that the Zia's love affair with the JI - again conventional wisdom has it that it was something to behold - faded and he needed other allies in Sindh."

Yeah, that's true. It's interesting because I guess the two conflicting theories about the beginning of MQM are 1. that it was basically 'establishment sponsored' for the reason's you've stated and 2. that it was a response to the demographic changes in Karachi because of the Afghan war.

takhalus said...

excellent post.. I'll admit to not being too impressed with Cyrils op-ed pieces. They are ok but just not very catchy..he comes across a bit dry but this was an enjoyable read.

Ahsan a point about your comment implying the MQM is an ethnic party. Interestingly one of the key reasons for the MQM's failure to join the now Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement in 1998-1999 ..was that the other parties had issue with Karachiites being classed as an "ethnicity". They were willing to accept the MQM as a political force but not as an ethnic party.

Nabeel said...

Wow. Great post.

That debate about journalism struck a chord with me because it's what I have always wanted to do. Was strongly discouraged from it by family because they didn't see much scope in media (this was around the beginning of the media boom and we didn't have 9826 channels and 224 newspapers back then) and even now (after completing four years in a business school) it's nothing more than something i'd like to do - because it's a pretty messed up industry. not really a place for someone idealistic like me, i think. plus, i really need more money and i can earn it by applying that BBA, so...yes. bye bye full time journalism. free-lancing might be the way to go.

but why be content with merely being an observer? isn't it the media's role to help inform, educate, and thus influence the masses? wouldn't you say that by, for example, uncovering the truth about Jinnahpur, you are influencing people? and why not? what's the point of op-ed pieces? for me the media has always been a way to change things for the better - why not use it that way? please explain,someone.

'Cautious optimism' is an excellent way of describing my own feelings about the country for the past few months. I don't think things are as bad as the media (foreign or domestic) makes them out to be. I socialize a little more than your average recent graduate - socializing in terms of interacting with people on the street, in buses, in marketplaces - and although I agree in that our country's institutions are royally screwed up, pakistan is not the house of cards some may suggest.

yesterday i was patiently listening to someone who was vehemently declaring that it was 'obvious' to anyone 'who can see the little signs' that there will be no Pakistan in 5 years. Balochistan and NWFP will have integrated with Afghanistan, Sindh is half sold-off to foreign interests anyway and is the next Dubai, and Punjab will be all that is left of our country. Suffice it to say that I was skeptical.
And right now, while reading this post, I get an SMS about how there are 700 Marines in the US Embassy in Islamabad, America has bought acres of land near Khan Research Labs and Charsadda, and that our nuclear assets are under threat. And this isn't from some uneducated conspiracy theorist - which leads me to question exactly what the random is happening? does anyone know?

Nabeel said...

By the way Kamran Khan pointed out the other day in his show that while the nation was embroiled in Jinnahgate, the power crisis was quietly...dealt with.
Shaukat Tarin said we don't REALLY need rented power. The Economic Commission said let's just take 1500 MW. Parliament said no way, we're renting 2500 MW and that's that. (The numbers are probably wrong, being quoted from memory). Like Cyril suggests, if you do the math, it seems pretty clear who is benefiting the most from the current theatrics being played out in the media.

Another thing – isn’t our media extraordinarily reflective of our society as a whole in that it is so untrustworthy and disunited (generally speaking)? Because Ahsan’s point that we can’t agree on the FACTS to begin with is so true. There’s a hundred thousand different versions of what happened two decades ago – we don’t have one history and different opinions on it. We have different histories AND different opinions. Achi khichdi pakai hai. Bas mirch zyada ho gayi. THODI zyada.

About MQM - I think they have been a highly influential force, but not quite the major political actors that the PPP, PMLN, or military have been. I don't know Pakistani history very well. I haven't lived in Pakistan for the past two decades. But from my experiences and observations in the past four years here (not a lot, i agree) - the MQM's power is restricted to the (strategically crucially important) Karachi, but in there it is almost absolute. All the major players recognize that now and thus whoever is in power lets them run CDGK the way they want (which they don't do too badly, i think).

Ahsan, was that wide swathe of Pakistani population wide in only socioeconomic terms, or was it a geographically and religiously diverse group too? Because there is a very one-sided picture in certain areas, in certain groups.

I agree with your contention that it's not like the MQM only gets votes on the basis of violence. I voted for them last year, and it was because I believed that the MQM was the best choice in terms of improving conditions in Karachi. I still do. No one held a gun to my head. Mustafa Kamal has been a fantastic ambassador - he's done a good job of cleaning up the MQM's image (which some consider to be his only purpose, and which is why the events of May 12 07 seemed so illogical.)

I'm looking forward to some more insight from both the readers and authors of 5 Rs. and Cyril himself as well. Apologies if I seem extraordinarily ignorant or stupid.

Ahsan said...

On the genesis of the MQM:

I've never bought the military-sponsored-to-counter-the-PPP argument, even when I was a complete novice about politics (please, no obvious jokes here). To me, the story was more about Mohajir disenchantment, the result of a decade of pro-Sindhi policies in the bureaucracy and language issues by ZAB, the demographic issues raised by Rabia, and the fact that the Mohajirs were the only ethnic group w/o a political party representing them. What's the puzzle here? It seems obvious to me that the conventional wisdom, such as it is, is the result of yet more conspiracy theorizing by Pakistanis and answering the "who gains most" question that Pakistanis love to ask.

And to Takhalus, I would say while "Karchiites" aren't an ethnicity, "Mohajirs" certainly are.

On CA's writing abilities:

I think he can be dry at times to be sure, but he's a very sensible and reasoned writer, which doesn't necessarily lend itself to rhetorical flourishes. You will notice, I am sure, that the flashiest op-edders tend to be the most idiotic in their pronouncements (Tom Friedman, anyone?). Why? Because their flashy words usually need flashy ideas, and flashy ideas are usually wrong. I'd much rather someone be temperate and right than entertaining and stupid.


On the last couple of sentences of your first comment, let me say that:

1. Everyone in Pakistan is a conspiracy theorist, even (especially?) the so-called educated urban middle class.

2. SMSs and forwarded emails are the least reliable sources for information. I have received similar emails in the last couple of days, usually with Ahmad Quraishi's name on top. I delete them immediately.

On to your second comment.

You certainly sound more aware than many people living in Pakistan, let alone people returning after two decades, so need for the apologetic stance. I would say your comment about the MQM's reach is accurate, except for the "CDGK being left alone" part. Mustafa Kamal has to put up with a lot of bullshit from the provincial govt (controlled by the PPP). They're constantly undermining him, taking away funding, messing with his portfolio etc. It is to his eternal credit that he soldiers on, and frankly, Karachiites are aware of it, and appreciate it.

As for my cricketing friends, it was diverse in socioeconomic terms and regionalist terms but perhaps not religious terms.

My biggest question about the MQM is (alluded to in the post): why don't they spread outside Karachi? Their model of politics is highly suited to other urban areas. Anyone have any ideas? It's in their interest to expand beyond their Mohajir base, so why don't they do it?

A. said...

Hmmm let's see. is it possible that Asfandyar Wali Khan or Mian Sahab would ever sweep Karachi? Never. Rural Sindh is wary at best and scared at worst of Muhajir political domination. Ethincity runs deep in our society and no change is likely in this regard for the next few decades.

Plus entire Pakistan hates Altaf Bhai from the guts. There is indeed much about him that can make ordinary Pakistanis hate him.

On top of it all, how could a movement that was created and run with serious violence to deal with the grievance of one ethinic group be embraced by other ethinicties; not atleast for a decade or two.

We are running a joke in the name of a country.

takhalus said...

A: Interesing point, with the demographic changes going on in karachi you probably will see other parties making inroads into the city. Don't forget the PNA's leaders in 1977 were elected from NAP/ANP leaders like Sherbaz Mazari and people like Asghar Khan won big from Karachi.

The ANP is an's sudden appearence on the scene in karachi more to do with a reaction to the MQMs success.

Realistically for any political party to survive in karachi they have to have some form of militant wing.

Junaid said...

Great piece.
Have always been a great fan of Cyril Almeida's work, keep it up sir!

AKS said...


I would contend that the MQM would not have been as popular as it had been if the JI, especially its student wing, hadn't been turned into an armed militia during the early 80s. Its remarkable how quickly the JI lost power in Karachi.


Strangely I feel that your point that "entire Pakistan hates Altaf bhai from the guts," makes Altaf bhai stronger in Karachi - 'he's a bastard yes, but he's our bastard.'


Interesting point, it shows that historically politics in Karachi have not been always rooted in ethnicity. Lets not forget the success of the National Students' Federation in student politics, had the NSF not been crushed by the army supported IJT then we could have seen it graduate into a political party, much like how the APMSO developed into the MQM. Lastly, it is also important to note that the PPP had cross-ethnic appeal in Karachi and many of its stalwarts were Mohajirs, its telling that while many remain senior advisers / party leaders I don't think there are any in parliament.


Just wanted to touch on your statement that "ethincity runs deep in our society and no change is likely in this regard for the next few decades." This may be true but Pakistani politics were not always as ethnically divided as they are now, once again we should put our hands together for our friends in the army for that.

AKS said...


With regards to your question as to why the MQM don't outside Karachi? The MQM has been trying to create a presence in urban Punjab (perfect place for them) but May 12th was a huge blow. Interestingly, they did manage to win seats in the AJK Assembly, in fact the Deputy Speaker of Azad Kashmir is an MQM member - apparently the MQM did a lot of work in the area after the 2005 earthquake.

Rabia said...

"if the JI, especially its student wing, hadn't been turned into an armed militia during the early 80s"

good point AKS, also it's kind of interesting how the IJT actually turned against Zia for a while - when Zia banned student parties in the early 80s (ironically to protect the IJT since it was getting unpopular due to its thuggish behaviour and there was no guarantee that it would win the future elections). So even though he did that to protect the IJT from its growing unpopularity, it caused the IJT to put pressure on JI to distance itself from the military government. So basically the JI fell apart within itself especially in Karachi and that led to a vacuum. Since Zia was brutally crushing the more progressive student parties, the APMSO was able to move in and garner support.

Anonymous said...


Please take my remark as a one off observation. Here is some unsolicited advice. An op-ed is a disposable piece of literature that is used for wrapping pakoras the day after. Make it my worthwhile if I spend five minutes reading it. If you can't do it week in and week out, look for an alternative line of work.

P.S:Does Dawn(or other newspapers) keep track of unique visitors to each op-ed? Those numbers will tell you all you really need to know. There won't be any need for anonymous losers like me to make stupid observations.

... said...

@Anonymous. The headline statistics on readership of individual columns is not a good barometer for judging the quality of the writer. Hamid Mir, Shahid Masood and other nut jobs have many times the audience that the likes of Najimuddin Shiekh Rasual Baksh Rais are able to garner. Heck, even Cowasjee is revered as an excellent columnist. What BS.

What is important is how a column adds to the general analysis a newspaper is offering its readers. In that regard, Cyril's insights are worth praising. Plus, how many Rhodes Scholars write in Pakistan newspapers every week?

Anonymous said...

why are educated pakistanis so hung up on such trivial issues?

pakistan's politics, its power-brokers, its history, many aspects of its culture, its tribalism, its military and its creation are rotten to the core. yet it amazes me how pakistanis, usually middle class ones, waste SO much time arguing about the politics, the economics and especially the favorite american-led war on pakistan's soil.

look for articles on karachi's slums and drug-ridden street children? lahores abused girls and prostitution problems and the subsequent spread of HIV? refugees and their plight in pakistan in general? (launching an appeal on the blog when the whole world does too doesnt count)

there is nothing. child and bonded labour in pakistan? no brilliant theories. no articles. no comments. no showing off with pointless adjectives in articles. nothing.

basically educated pakistanis start buzzing and exuding literary and verbal effort only when topics of no real use to pakistan are discussed. for all other serious and critical issues facing pakistan they are silent observers.

this comment is not aimed at this blog particularly but is a reflection of my readings of several pakistan-related blogs and also especially an inference from the numerous ('000s) pakistani dinners/socials i have been to where literally hours are wiled away by educated pakistanis about what aq khan really is or is not responsible for and other political tripe.

in over 6 years of education in the west and meetings with what must be over 100 different pakistani students who could be considered the elite of their country - not ONE ever said to me he/she is going use what they've studied to alleviate some of pakistan's chronic problems. And it is pakistanis who do this because i met bengalis, ghanaians, libyans and philipinos who weren't like this, who are already back in their countries having a positive impact or AT LEAST talking about how to make a positive impact. not pakistanis, no. they are too busy discussin PML and MQM and the Afpak strategy.

what a waste. authors on this blog have hated on 'the average' pakistanis' love for conspiracy theories. maybe the authors are no different in their penchant for discussing and blogging on equally futile topics. both are detrimental to pakistan.

A. said...

That's true. But there is good reason for it. Most Pakistanis have become cynical and for good reason. They know that actually trying to solve any of these real issues is unlikely to do anything. On top of this, our society discourages those who take unwarranted initiatives and try to take the lead on issues. And for God's sake don't tell me another story about how a bunch of uber Pakistan youths carried out community service. They are almost always one-offs, and in most cases show-offs.

As to why discuss the peripheral and not the very real real issues, its very simple. Its gossip baby. As said above, politics is our national sport. Of course talking about real people and real issues makes us sober and sad. Who wants that, hain ji?

takhalus said...

I think the JI's decline in karachi also stemps from the shift in power within it;s top leadership towards Punjab and NWFP...although things have gone full circle with it's new chief.

Good point about the PPP, people tend to forget that how the PPP started first as a national party and then developed a power base in interior sindh following ZAB's execution. The PPP did extremely well in karachi's 1979 local elections.

Tazeen said...

I don't remember the exact numbers, but MQM did win a lot votes (in thousands) in Okara in 2008 elections.

They have about 5 members in Azad Jammu Kashmir assembly and they are getting active in Northern Areas and if rumours are to be believd, the new Gilgit Baltistan region will see MQM very active in local politics.

Hamza said...

A couple of comments:

1. With regards to the possibility of the MQM winning seats outside of its Urdu speaking base, I see this as wishful thinking. Despite a few attempts to make inroads in Punjab, the MQM's reputation among any non-Urdu speaking community is far too negative for this to occur. Admittedly, the Karachi Nazim has done a good job, or atleast gives off the image of unrestrained energy giving us the sense that he's trying to do something, someone in Multan or Faisalabad aren't impacted by that. In their minds, the MQM is associated with Altaf Bhai, the 1992 operation, and then May 12.

One way that political parties can reach out to suspicious ethnic groups is through a symbolic gesture or act. In the Pakistani context, that would be the nomination of two or three non Urdu speaking MQM members to the Senate. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, I haven't seen this happen. Finally, the comment above mine mentioned that MQM won a few seats in Azad Kashmir. That is correct, but I distinctly remember questions being raised about the manner in which those seats were won. Imran Khan first raised the issue in 2007, but apparently all those seats were elected from Karachi based refugee camps for the Earthquake victims. I don't have an authoritative source for this, but I'll see if I can find something. If that is indeed the case, It's an open question whether the refugee camp voters voted on their own accord or were "encouraged" to vote for the MQM.

One final minor unrelated comment, and I apologize for veerinng away from the discussion: Somewhere in the transcript, I noticed that Ahsan took a pot shot at The Daily Times. It may not have the largest readership, the breadth of coverage, or the "scoops" that The News may have, but it does beat The News in two major respects. First, the copy editing for The News is absolutely atrocious. The grammar, unneccesary wordiness, and absence of separation between opinion and news gives the image of a rather unprofessional newspaper. The other plus point to the Daily Times over The News is their coverage of Balochistan. The Pakistani print and electronic media usually doesn't do a good job of covering Balochistan related issues, but the Daily Times bureau chief in Quetta, Malik Siraj Akbar, has done a phenomenal job of bringing to light a lot of very important Balochistan specific issues that usually don't make the news pages of the other pages. He even has a blog that is worth checking out.

A final disclaimer. I'm only comparing The News and The Daily Times here. The Dawn seems to have a pretty solid copy editing team and their Balochistan coverage is also quite good.

AKS said...

A little tidbit about the JI's new leader: Syed Munawar Hasan used to live in the same neighbourhood as my maternal grandfather, on April 4th 1979 his family went around the distributing mithai, when the neighbours asked why they excitedly informed them that ZAB had been hanged. My grandfather is a die-hard ZAB supporter, and I'm guessing Munawar Hasan would've known this, so when he received mithai he was left utterly stunned.

Anonymous said...

LOL - as expected no educated pakistani cares about the real issues. Instead they prefer to ponder on how MQM won seats in kashmir.

if ever a country deserved to be torn apart and rebuilt, it is pakistan. and if ever a people were more culpable in the rape of their nation, it is pakistanis.