Interesting times in Pakistan - View from Dubai
May you live in interesting times! A Pakistani colleague often revisits this ancient Chinese curse when discussing the state of affairs in his country. Given the eventful history of Pakistan right from its birth in 1947, you would think the Chinese curse is at the very core of the land of the pure. And the never-say-die people of Pakistan have developed an amazing resilience living from crisis to crisis; from one military tyrant to another, from one corrupt politician to another and from one bout of instability to the next.
|Protesters hold a rally against President Musharraf in Lahore on Thursday. (AP Photo/K.M.Chaudary)
And just as it's true of my own country next door, there's never a dull moment in Pakistani politics. The country does live in interesting times.
Remarkably, the people of Pakistan have endured all this without ever giving up on their hopes and optimism about a better tomorrow and a better country - as envisioned by its architects. Just look at the watershed developments this past week. Who could have ever thought that Benazir Bhutto's Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League would come together to form the country's first, largely democratic coalition government? Benazir and Nawaz, both former prime ministers, were more than bitter rivals; they were once sworn enemies. But after the cataclysmic events of the past few months, especially after the tragic assassination of Benazir, it seems anything is possible.
This is what the people, weary of the long military rule as well as the corrupt misrule of elected politicians, expected from their leaders.
The Pakistanis would not have forgiven any more self-serving, petty games on the part of their politicians at a time when their country is going through one of the most challenging existential crises in its history. Whatever their past, Sharif, the former PM who returned home only recently after a decade in exile, and Benazir's widower Zardari deserve kudos for rightly gauging the popular mood and responding to it in the best possible manner. Another critical message that the coalition partners have got it right is that the people are not prepared to accept any more headstrong tyrants and spineless puppets. They want Pakistan, plagued by a myriad problems created by its own leaders and friends who are not so friendly, to break free from the past and make a fresh start. They want the leaders who are accountable to them, the people who have chosen them, not to some distant masters in Washington and London.
One can't be too sure how long this coalition of the PPP, the Muslim League and other smaller parties will survive and how it's going to shape in the months and years to come. But early signs look promising. And given the remarkable success of coalition experience in neighbouring India, Pakistan's twin and the world's biggest democracy, there are reasons to be optimistic about this new era in Pakistani politics. Ultimately, what people want is good and clean governance; a government that works and delivers on its promises. The electorate does not give two hoots if it's a single-party rule or a coalition government. What they do not want is yet another long night of misrule and abuse of power. Besides, a coalition government by its very nature ensures that parties in power keep their totalitarian tendencies that come so naturally to those in power in check. More important, a widely representative coalition enjoys greater popular support and mandate needed to take some really bold and path-breaking steps. Pakistan badly needs such forceful action to heave it out of the unholy mess that it finds itself in today. And this mission impossible begins with undoing what has been inflicted on the country over the past few years.
To be fair to the General, unlike the men in khaki before him, he did not force himself on Pakistan. Rather, the power was thrust on him when Sharif, the then prime minister, tried to sack him as the army chief. The army rebelled and sacked Sharif himself. The rest, as we know, is history.
Let's give the man his due. Musharraf began well and did help the country stand up economically once again, after years of political and economic mismanagement. However, somewhere along the way, he did what most men in power invariably end up doing. He fell in love with power and with himself.
He persuaded himself he is God's gift to his people and that the country of 170 million wouldn't survive without him. And ever since, the reasonable General who once championed Enlightened Moderation has gone to absurd lengths to perpetuate his power. This is what has proved the fatal flaw of our hero.
The reckless abuse of power and messing around with the country's institutions, essential for a civilized and peaceful society, has shockingly weakened Pakistan. The man once credited with freeing the media proved its worst enemy when he saw it as a threat to his survival.
But more than the Press, it is what the General did to the judiciary that heralded his downfall. The new government has to undo this catastrophic damage to the nation's institutions and do it fast. Pakistan urgently needs initiatives restoring order and healing in all areas. The process has already begun with the freeing of Supreme Court judges including chief justice Chaudhry.
Chaudhry and his fellow judges have come to symbolise hope because of their courage under fire and steadfastness in standing up to the regime.
Pakistan's new leaders appear conscious of the historic nature of their mandate. That is why the very first order Prime Minister Gillani issued brought freedom to the judges.
Another and bigger challenge before Pakistan is the equation with the US, its traditional ally, friend and the source of many of its current woes.
For his own survival, Musharraf gave a free rein to the Americans putting the entire country and its resources at their beck and call.
Pakistan and its people have paid a monumental price for the disastrous and directionless US war on terror. Thousands of innocents have died and hundreds have disappeared into the US gulags around the world, without the so-called due process.
For the first time in Pakistan's history, the bulk of its troops are fighting their own people along the border with Afghanistan. The whole of northwest frontier with Afghanistan has turned into a battlefield. Yet the Americans led by their 'fair and balanced' media continue to push Pakistan to do MORE! If the Prez is today loathed by his own people -- with his popularity ratings at 18 per cent, he is less popular than his friend Bush -- Musharraf has to thank no one but his American friends. This is why Pak-US equation needs to be urgently recalibrated. Sharif was right in bluntly telling the visiting US officials the day the new prime minister was sworn in that Pakistan is not a one-man show anymore and that all decisions including those about relations with US would be taken by the new parliament.
Sharif voiced his people's anger when he told John Negroponte that Pakistan couldn't fight the US war converting itself into a slaughterhouse any more. It's a message the Americans should have got long time ago. Too much of innocent blood has been spilt. It must stop and stop right away.
Pakistan, thanks to its sheer size and its nuclear power status, is the leader of the Muslim world. It must lead by example. It cannot remain the shady henchman of a reviled neighbourhood bully terrorising its own people. It should show the world that Islam, democracy, progress and enlightenment can go together.
(Aijaz Zaka Syed is a senior editor and columnist of Khaleej Times)