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Pakistani Political Triangle

 31 December 2007

By Yisrael Ne’eman

The deplorable assassination of Pakistani presidential candidate Benazir Bhutto (apparently by Islamic extremists) has highlighted the contradictions and intricacies confronting Third World Moslem states as they grapple with issues of modern development in the face of traditional Islamic society. The situation is somewhat less complicated in Arab/Moslem regimes as there are basically two avenues to follow – either a secular semi-dictatorship usually supported by the US and Europe or an adversarial resurgent Islamic regime preaching fundamentalist jihad. Pakistan presents us with a triangle as Bhutto represented a third side to the options, that of a liberal democratic approach, even should it be more flawed than meets the eye. In the Arab/Moslem world the liberal democratic approach receives little sympathy and has extremely limited representation in public discourse or representative assemblies.

The liberal democratic side in the Pakistani triangle has its roots in the British colonial rule over the Indian Empire. Hindu India itself is the world’s largest democracy with over a billion citizens, even if the country is composed of many ethnic groups, languages, local loyalties and minority religious loyalties such as Islam and the Sikh. With partition in 1947 each state went its own way after a war whereby virtually all Hindus were forced to flee Pakistan but some 15% of India remained Moslem.

Over the past 60 years Pakistan continues to be jolted back and forth between army rule and attempts at democracy. The northern and western mountain regions have always been much more traditional tribal and Islamic while the south and east more urbanized and progressive. A patchwork state glued together by Britain as the western Moslem side of the Indian Empire partition (Bangladesh is to the east) it is questionable today whether Pakistan has a national identity. Pakistan is a state but not a nation.

Over the years attempts at unifying Pakistan were accomplished either by military intervention or by way of the democratic process. Today Pres. Pervez Musharraf, who left the army as chief of staff just a few weeks ago, represents the military while Bhutto’s political faction, the Pakistani Peoples Party plies the liberal democratic line. The hard line Islamic approach (including the Taliban and al-Qaeda) is embedded in the far off mountains to the north and west. Elements of Islamic interests are also present in the security forces.

More often than not, Pakistan is held together by coercive military power whether the generals rule or not. A secular, semi-dictatorial, military regime has suited western interests just fine as radical Islamists are held in check. On the other hand, elections and liberal democratic noises emanating from Washington and other western capitals are obligatory. Although viewed by many as hypocritical rhetoric the West would like to see a democratically elected secular pro-western leader (preferably of civilian background) supported by a determined military committed to democracy. But that is a perfect world.

Lest one forget Ms. Bhutto is from a fabulously wealthy land owning family employing many workers as indentured servants. Furthermore she and her family have been accused of corruption (with documented research) by her greatest civilian adversary Nawas Sharif, a religious conservative who served as prime minister from 1990-99. Sharif was forced out by the military when he tried to remove Gen. Musharraf as chief of staff and was accused of plotting to kill some 200 people. He eventually ended up in exile and only returned to Pakistan recently. Liberal or conservative we are speaking of the same power elite, despised by many, in particular by those in the military.

Under increasing pressure Gen. Musharraf announced an amnesty allowing all to return while he canceled corruption charges and eventually called for elections. It was said he even cut a deal with Ms. Bhutto while at the same time rearranging the Supreme Court when questions of the legality of his candidacy arose while he still served in the military. In confronting Islamic extremism two sides of the triangle had to come together in a temporary alliance and for Musharraf Bhutto was preferable to Sharif. It appears Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari will run in her place. Even should the civilianized Musharraf lose the election the military will support him and do its best to curtail Pakistani instability in the face of the radical Islamist challenge.

But it cannot be expected to last for long. Should Pakistan be viewed as fracturing, the army will once again overthrow the civilian regime as in the past. None can afford the shattering of a nuclear armed Pakistan. The West will engage in the usual hypocritical jargon but behind the scenes great gratitude will be expressed. Although many Pakistanis blame Musharraf for the assassination, he and Bhutto were very much on the same side, if only for convenience sake since both feared the Islamists. The army and Bhutto’s successor will continue to need each other on different occasions.

Just like many other developing states where tribal, local and religious loyalties trump the attempt at construction of a national entity the military will continue to play a central coercive role in curbing excesses, whether viewed as overly democratic or reactionary Islamist. The army is the only force capable of battering down jihadist Islam and thereby will remain dominant for years to come. Elected civilian leaders will be used as temporary allies serving as a facade when necessary. True democracy in Pakistan should not be expected to take hold for many years to come.