An Unstable Kind of Stability

Gulf News, May 18, 2005

An isolated terrorist attack in Egypt, a violent uprising in Uz-bekistan and riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan against the alleged desecration of the Quran all these incidents point towards the potential for instability in the region that American policy-makers now describe as the greater Middle East.

The regimes in these countries are closely allied to the United States.

With the exception of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who won an open and contested election, none of these countries is ruled by an elected leader.

Perhaps it is for that reason that Karzai alone had the confidence to describe the protests over the now discredited Newsweek report about the desecration of the Quran at the American prison in Guantanamo as “manifestations of a fledgling democracy”.

The other American allies simply ducked for cover while figuring out ways to repress the sentiment of their own people.
Egyptian authorities remain reluctant to publicly discuss the recent revival of terrorist attacks against tourists, and maintain their tight lid on dissent.

For a quarter of a century, the United States has underwritten President Hosni Mubarak’s iron-fisted governance in the name of maintaining stability in Egypt and saving that country from Islamist militants.

But the jailing of thousands of Islamists and a virtual ban on open political activity have clearly not eliminated the threat that has been used to justify personalised and repressive rule.

Surely there is a lesson here if anyone is willing to learn it. Authoritarian regimes initially secure external backing on the basis of legitimate threats to stability, but after some time, if they do not become more inclusive and open, they simply serve as the lid of a tinderbox.

Pakistan, under America’s post-9/11 ally General Pervez Musharraf, is not as politically repressive as Mubarak’s Egypt or Karimov’s Uzbekistan.

But its stability is far from secure. Within the same week that Islamists hit Pakistan’s streets to protest about the Quran issue, Pakistani authorities manhandled human rights activists involved in a road run aimed at supporting the rights of men and women to participate in sports events together.

Musharraf’s security apparatus was dealing with Islamist protesters one day and secular ones the next. His claim of enlightened moderation notwithstanding, it is significant to note that it was the secular protesters that got beaten up and hauled away by the police.

Unlike Uzbekistan and Egypt, Pakistan’s secular opposition is not dead.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by Benazir Bhutto, managed to get more popular votes than any other party in the restricted election of 2002, even though its leader was in exile and the target of persistent hostility by Pakistan’s permanent establishment.


The Nawaz Sharif faction of the Pakistan Muslim League secured more popular votes than the MMA, though the gerrymandering by the Musharraf regime left it with far fewer seats in the National and provincial assemblies.

Add to that the votes of the left wing ethnic parties and we have more than half the electorate. In fact, the Islamist alliance MMA managed its much talked about electoral success with only 11 per cent of the popular vote.

The current superficial stability in Pakistan is the result not of Musharraf’s policies but the realisation on the part of the secular political leaders (notably Benazir Bhutto) that Pakistan faces two parallel battles.

The first is the struggle for civilian supremacy in which the Islamist parties and the secular democrats have a common cause.
The other is the conflict between obscurantist forces and those seeking Pakistan’s adherence to contemporary values.

Benazir appears to have decided not to align with the Islamists to press Musharraf on relinquishing power. By doing so, she hopes to avoid a rerun of Pakistan’s past political campaigns against entrenched dictators.

Cooperation between secular political forces and the Islamists in the past empowered the Islamists even as it helped create political space for secular democrats.

Musharraf and the Pakistani establishment have refused to reciprocate the goodwill of the secular political forces. The Americans continue to ignore Benazir and other secular leaders with popular support, putting all their eggs in General Musharraf’s basket.

But what would happen if Benazir throws caution to the wind, accepts the demand of her party’s base and joins a grand alliance for the restoration of constitutional rule? The facade of stability in Pakistan would begin to erode.

The sensible choice for Musharraf (and those who wish him well) would be to encourage him to become inclusive voluntarily and to reach out to Benazir, not to dictate terms but with genuine respect for her popular support.

If he does not do so, she should not be criticised for risking instability after so much caution. After all, why should we expect her to become irrelevant like the secular opposition in Egypt and Uzbekistan?