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Democracy As 'The Best Revenge' In Pakistan

Police officers gather at a secured street leading to the Presidential Palace and Parliament House in Islamabad on January 11.
While the political crisis that has beset Pakistan is seen as do-or-die for its civilian government, the country's powerful army is also feeling the heat amid signs of public opposition to any explicit military intervention.

Despite "provocative" albeit well-placed "state-within-the-state" comments by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani referring to the army and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) or the sacking of the defense secretary, the military leadership so far has not attempted to intervene directly.

Instead, analysts suggest, the generals are behind the scenes pushing an "interventionist" Supreme Court not to let the civilian government off the hook.

The case in point is the murky memo addressed to former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, appealing for help to prevent Pakistan's generals from an attempted coup in light of the May 1-2 raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) introduced by former President Pervez Musharraf granting amnesty to all political leaders, workers, and bureaucrats accused of corruption, embezzlement, or misuse of authority from 1986 to 1999.

In recent weeks, the hydra-like crisis in Pakistan has become the focus of both Pakistani and international media, who are following every turn of events with the utmost interest.

Notwithstanding media criticism of the civilian government over a host of issues -- including governance, economic woes, law and order, energy, and perceived timidity in the face of militancy -- many leading analysts, newspapers, and television commentators say they're averse to the kind of extraconstitutional measures seen in the past.

So despite the drawbacks, many commentators appear to favor the existing civilian set-up -- which could mark a positive trend in Pakistan, where portrayals of the army are frequently those of the hero, whether through conflict with India, the overthrow of civilian governments, or efforts to counter militancy.

In a commentary in Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper, journalist Muhammad Hanif argues that the Pakistani army is responsible for virtually all the troubles buffeting that nuclear-armed country and its 180 million people.

"Pakistan's army is as corrupt as the politicians from whom it wants to save the country," Hanif says. "It's just better at paperwork."

In each of the past three major coups -- in 1958 (General Ayub Khan), 1977 (General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq), and 1999 (Musharraf) -- political leaders, civil society, and even a majority of media outlets welcomed the change in the hope of a brighter future.

Such feelings are less prevalent now -- even among the staunchest opponents of the government within the political milieu, civil-society, and media circles.

Citing the army's press release in response to Prime Minister Gilani's interview with a Chinese newspaper, a leading Pakistani newspaper, "The Express Tribune," poses key questions to its readers about the army's role in the country's politics:

The first question that comes to mind as one reads this is did the military's actions in 1958, 1977 and 1999 also reflect an "allegiance to the State and the Constitution?" Is not a former army chief on record as having said that the Constitution was a mere piece of paper? Hasn't Pakistan been ruled for over half of its existence by military dictators and did it come out any better during the time they were in charge? Does not the Constitution clearly state that the military is to be subservient to the elected government and that its constitutional mandate is to guard the country's physical boundaries and to act as directed by the executive organ of the state?

And going a step further in an editorial titled "Not Another Coup, Please," the newspaper says:

It has to be said that the military's practice of playing to the gallery by issuing seemingly self-righteous press statements, to assert its independence from the executive, is unfortunate.

On the same subject, another leading newspaper, "Dawn," writes:

One thing in particular bears stating: if Pakistan had been a more developed democracy, the authors of the ISPR [the army's Inter-Services Public Relations body] statement this week would have been summarily sacked. To directly challenge a prime minister duly elected by the public under the letter of the law and the constitution in such a public and blunt manner would amount to, in more advanced democracies, an intolerable challenge to the democratic dispensation. Alas, Pakistan is a very different country.

Discussing the existing crisis in Pakistan and the key players and factors responsible for the present situation, "The New York Times" calls intervention in a democratic system disastrous.

This disastrous pattern could be repeating itself as the current civilian government comes under increasing pressure from the army and the Supreme Court.

Characterizing the government-army clash as byzantine infighting, "The New York Times" draws clear lines for each side:

The army should focus on what it can do best: fight the militants working to bring down the state and destabilize the region. For its part, the civilian government needs to deal with Pakistan's severe economic troubles and repair a political culture in which voices of moderation are increasingly snuffed out.

Media types in Pakistan appear more aware of their role with respect to democratic institutions this time. In a commentary in "The Express Tribune," analyst Nasim Zehra writes: "Had there been an independent electronic media in October 1999 there would have been no coup."

Referring to the present state of affairs in Pakistan, Zehra calls it tragic, mainly because the democratic system failed to take root in Pakistan:

Had it taken root, we would have evolved a credible and effective national management within which Pakistanis could lead secure lives and have hope for progress, and where those exercising executive and bureaucratic authority were held accountable for their actions.

In the past, the tussle had been primarily between the army and the civilian governments. Now, Pakistan's Supreme Court is in the fray. Questions are therefore being raised about the role of top judges once they are fully backed by the media and civil society against a dictator.

Discussing the Supreme Court's recent questioning of the "honesty" of Prime Minister Gilani in light of Koranic injunctions, "Daily Times" columnist Dr. Muhammad Taqi argues in a contribution titled "Judicial Hubris":

In a country reeling under the effects of radicalization, the last thing needed is the industrial-strength moral certitude and virtual proselytizing from the bench.

Taqi goes on to say that "the NRO was a person-specific regulation and repugnant to the universal principles of justice and equality. It could have been quashed without recourse to a full treatise in theology and theocracy. It is most unfortunate that the honorable judges have repeatedly resorted to religious rhetoric to establish the case against the NRO beneficiaries.”

Another columnist, Kamran Shafi, in a piece called "The Pox On Everything Else" in "The Express Tribune," asks the Supreme Court why judicial commissions are silent over the role of intelligence agencies in their failure to track down bin Laden in Abbottabad and the culprits behind the tragic murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad:

What is of utmost import today; what is a matter of life or death for many Pakistanis; what will determine whether we are a civilized people or a horde of wild brutes is the shamefully non-conclusive report on the brutal and savage beating to death of journalist Saleem Shahzad.

Shafi poses some questions for the judicial commission assigned to investigate Shahzad's murder:

Now then, a few questions to the Commission: Were all of Shahzad's telephone records recovered? WHO disappeared them in the first place? Were the “credible sources” who stated that Shahzad was in the custody of an '"intelligence agency'" questioned?

Like several other analysts, Ilyas Khan of the BBC suggests the army is supporting the Supreme Court behind the scenes in order to push the government into a corner:

Instead, the military are thought to prefer to let the Supreme Court use "constitutional" methods to go after the government.

There is a widespread belief among Pakistani analysts that President Asif Ali Zardari has never been the generals' favorite but that any urge to remove him by force is tempered by the majority his party enjoys in the country's elected parliament.

The BBC's Khan writes:

In the past few weeks, the powerful military has heaped pressure on the civilian government by participating in a Supreme Court inquiry which could see President Zardari condemned as a "traitor."

Khan goes on to ask two key questions:

If the government continues to resist the Supreme Court, will the judiciary call in the army, which it can do under the constitution, to implement its decisions? If it does, will the army -- already in confrontational mode with the government -- make a move?

Though Pakistan's future appears fraught with uncertainty, it's all but certain that the removal of the civilian government -- through either the Supreme Court or direct army intervention -- would set back democracy and further weaken international trust in an already reeling Pakistan.

So optimists might point to a cautiously optimistic reading of the situation -- after four years of uninterrupted democratic rule -- wherein the army has remained in its barracks and the generals have held back because the notion of army rule is so unpopular among Pakistanis.

Perhaps the late Benazir Bhutto had such a scenario in mind when she said that "democracy is the best revenge."

-- Daud Khattak