ISLAMABAD: Two years ago, in August 2010, women gathered around the coffin of Frontier Constabulary commandant Safwat Ghayur, who had been killed earlier in the day by a suicide bomber at a busy intersection of Peshawar, as he stopped at a traffic signal on his way home. Among the mourners was his young widow, shocked but composed. Near her sat other young women who had lost their husbands, wives of senior police officers who had been the mainstays in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s police service. All had been killed by militants.
In villages in faraway Punjab, women tremble in fear and uncertainty; women uncertain about their martial status as their husbands lie entombed under tons of snow on the Siachen Glacier. Widows in waiting. There are thousands of them all over the country. These are the faces of Pakistan’s convulsions the world won’t ever see - a continuing tragedy where the military frames the nation’s foreign and security policies, decisions marked by a steady trickle of deaths, in war and peace.
Today, policies on Kashmir and Afghanistan and bilateral relations with the US and India have come home to roost in Pakistan’s blood-soaked cities. Demoralised, Pakistanis hardly repose faith in a discredited government as it battles the judiciary in a fight for life, all the while laying claim to constitutional power and invoking the inviolability of democracy.
Though Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani has, in his Independence Day address, strongly hinted at a fresh offensive against al-Qaeda operatives and the Haqqani network in North Waziristan (also referred to by the US secretary of defence Leon Panetta), inaction has been the rule of the game till now. When asked some time back, why he was not taking on Punjabi jehadis, Kayani responds: “We cannot afford to open too many fronts”. The presence of Afghanistan’s Haqqani network in Pakistan has also, till now, been ignored on the same pretext.
The country’s continuing paralysis over so many existential issues has naturally aroused great interest here over recent developments in Cairo, where a popular president, Mohammed Morsi, has retired the seemingly invincible army chief, several generals and the defence minister. A shake-up in the military saw the exit of field marshal Hussein Tantawi, chief of staff Sami Enan, military intelligence chief Muraf Muwafi, governor of North Sinai Abdel Wahab Mabruk and head of military police Hamdy Badeen. Morsi also cancelled a constitutional declaration which sought to curtail presidential powers and scrapped laws which gave the military a role in framing public policy.
Can a similar thing ever happen in this country, where the military has been the power behind Islamabad and is it fair to compare Cairo and Islamabad?
“I do not think we can have a Morsi-like situation here. The Pakistani leadership does not have the kind of moral authority which the Egyptian leader has. To do this, you need credibility and public support, which our civilian leadership lacks,” says Zahid Hussain, author and award-winning journalist. Besides credibility, Morsi has also distanced himself from his party.
Again, with elections having given a semblance of democratic freedom to Pakistanis, civil society playing its role during military rule, and the emergence these days of new centres of power like the judiciary and media, the raw compulsion of an Arab spring is not there.
The zeal and passion with which Egyptians came out in hordes to demand freedom has never been witnessed in Pakistan, not even during the worst form of military rule. The nearest thing was when Pakistanis led a mass movement to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, arbitrarily removed by Gen Pervez Musharraf. Then there was the MRD movement to restore democracy during Gen Ziaul Haq’s days, but Pakistan has never had its Tiananmen or Tahrir Square.
However, as in Egypt, foreign powers (read Washington) played a role in backing iron-clad rule for decades - Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf - and turning a blind eye on ‘local’ events, like the execution of a popular leader like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
“In our neck of the woods, the military remains entrenched in decision-making precisely because brave steps that could limit its power are sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Even incidents that shake the national security construct, like the Abbottabad raid on Osama bin Laden, conveniently fade into oblivion because there was no accountability for the military’s ineptitude,” comments an English daily.
A senior government official comments: “There was a possibility that heads would roll for Abbottabad, but you do not have a government that is popular. Institutions are at the loggerheads with each other, paving the way for the military to once again take up a commanding position. Look at the Turkish model. It happens there because of a popular government putting generals on the mat”.
However, Senator Mushahid Hussain, secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, points out that Pakistanis have short memories, and assume ‘this can never happen here’. He says what happened in Egypt this week took place twice in Pakistan’s political history, and that too, like Egypt, under the direction of elected civilian leaders.
“In March 1972, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sacked two service chiefs at one go - army chief Lt Gen Gul Hasan and Air Marshal Rahim Khan (who was a high-profile ‘kingmaker’ like field marshal Tantawi) - and then like Morsi, gave them cushy sops (ambassadorial assignments. Tantawi has been made a presidential adviser).
“In October 1998, PM Nawaz Sharif sacked the army chief, the somewhat ‘intellectual’ Gen Jehangir Karamat, who opposed a long-duration technocrat caretaker set-up, opting instead for polls which paved the way for Sharif’s return in February 1997, and then supported Sharif in his tussle with the president and chief justice in November 1997,” recalls Mushahid.
He says both civilian leaders successfully pulled off what subsequently turned out to be a short spell of civilian supremacy in Pakistan.
Recently, former PM Yusuf Raza Gilani removed a military nominee, defence secretary Lt Gen (R) Naeem Khalid Lodhi, for ‘misconduct’. He was replaced with Pakistan’s first woman defence secretary Nargis Sethi. The move was short-lived. With General Headquarters scowling in disapproval, the government blinked, and Lt Gen (R) Asif Yasin Malik was sent to replace Sethi.
As the Muslim world measures and deals with the fundamental political transition, says Mushahid, it’s undergoing a still-unfolding aftermath, and its significance marvels still. Since the past half a century or so, “we are seeing elected civilians in the lead role, unlike change in the past, which was pushed by the army. After Turkey having put former coup-makers or would-be coup-makers on trial or in jail, it remains to be seen how durable president Morsi’s actions to establish civilian writ over the khaki-dominated Egyptian state would be.”
Pakistan waits, and watches.