Islamabad belatedly came to terms with new ground realities in the Middle East, but a bit too slowly. Once catalytic at the United Nations for de-colonisation of the Maghreb states, Pakistan is amongst the last few nations to recognise Libya’s National Transition Council (NTC) led by Mustafa Abdel Jalil. While the major powers except Russia, financial institutions like IMF, World Bank and our not-so-favourite neighbours such as India had accepted the reality of Qaddafi’s exit, the PPP-led regime assured the dictator of its full support until recently. Though none in the Qaddafi family understood the complex game of cricket, Pakistan may take years to search for a more relevant title for the imposing stadium in Lahore.
For today’s Pakistani leadership, such questions are less challenging than engaging the estranged allies and battling the apex court in the spirit of reconciliation. Why should one focus so much on Libya, while the country has a mess to deal with in its immediate neighbourhood, eastern and western both? Dynamic nations require imaginative pursuit of the country’s geo-political clout and national power (hard working and surplus labour forces in Pakistan’s case). While depressed and demoralised foreign ministry is bogged down with America’s do-more chant for ‘Afghan’ peace, the government really lacks a statesman.
President Asif Ali Zardari may be a true Machiavellian in domestic politics but a statesman he is not. For him like most of the Pakistani political elite, oil-rich Gulf nations are synonymous to the Middle East. Countries like Jordan, Syria up to Morocco were erased from national memory particularly after the PIA abandoned these destinations, owing to assertive lobby for Gulf-based airlines.
Needless delay in recognising new administration in Libya has already inflicted loss of image and opportunities ahead of a massive reconstruction exercise. Even Tripoli had to threaten Islamabad of cancelling visas of the ambassador and staff, and expulsion of the leftover labour forces in the country. The delay in the NTC recognition did not happen without reason. The PPP’s decade old cosiness with the Qaddafi regime dating back to ZA Bhutto’s time cross cut the national interest in the country where over 100,000 Pakistanis were employed in various trades and cadres. Since taking the reins of power, Asif Ali Zardari preferred his personal friend as ambassador in the North African country and pursued a narrow stream of ‘interests’.
Libya is not the only exception in flawed or forgotten principles of the Pakistani foreign policy. Tunisia too has been totally ignored since Ben Ali flew to a ‘hostel’ in Saudi Arabia. In the good old days when Sir Zafarullah Khan led the foreign ministry, Pakistan issued passports to leading freedom fighters in the Maghreb states besides advocating their causes in the United Nations fora.
Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s equivalent of Quaid-e-Azam or Kemal Ataturk carried Pakistani travel documents as well. I was touched to find the second most important avenue in Tunis named after Jinnah. Besides, one can find Sir Zafarullah Khan Road and Patras Bukhari Road in Tunisia as well. They may never forget the role Pakistan played for their freedom; Islamabad is faced with a depressive amnesia.
For a democratic Pakistan, supporting the will of the people should be a thumbnail principle adopted worldwide without exceptions. The wave of public uprising is striking other nations of special interest to Pakistan as well. Islamabad continues to stand on the wrong side of history in Bahrain, for example, where the Fauji Foundation has ‘generously’ exported thousands of retired army men to protect a dictatorial regime belonging to a religious minority. Iran’s open involvement in supporting the Shia majority should not be an excuse for any country to stand behind the US and Saudi Arabia-aided unpopular ruler.
The foreign ministry maintains a mum on the question of Yemen where the brutal regime has the backing of Riyadh and Washington (to continue its hunt for Al-Qaeda and let the drones kill on suspicion). Often succumbing to unreasonable Saudi influence, Pakistan fails to protect its very own national interest and image.
The next one in line to fall is Bashar Al-Assad, another personal friend of President Asif Ali Zardari and old ally of the Peoples Party. Hafiz Al-Assad had given refuge to the Bhuttos after General Zia-ul-Haq imposed martial law. Though Pakistan always stood by the Middle Eastern nations in their wars against Israel, the Alawite family of Syria and Ba’athist dictators in general sided with India against Pakistan during the Cold War.
Bashar Al-Assad, who President Zardari has not only paid two visits during his presidency but also had invited to visit Pakistan, has claimed 4,000 lives of innocent Syrian seeking a life of dignity, prosperity and freewill. Bashar along with his brother Maher Al-Assad has retaliated with snipers, tanks, fighter jets and naval ships against the protesting Syrian population across the country. Though the regime belonging to 13-percent Alawite community (backed by Iran, India and Russia in the UN Security Council) has tried to give a sectarian colour to the uprising, valiant Syrians cutting across religious, sectarian or ethnic divisions have been assembling every Friday noon in impressive numbers shouting ‘irhal ya Bashar, irhal ya Bashar’ (Go Bashar go).
Since March, Syria’s Assad clan has to its credit mass graves, forced disappearances and a gagged media. To silence an activist, dead or alive, the regime’s sleuths kidnap his sisters or other female family member, often founded dead after being raped and tortured.
For a country that historically stood for principles of freedom, prosperity and peace, condemnation of such brutality is the least of expectations. Islamabad continues to be loyal to the bloodthirsty regime of Assad, while the world is acknowledging the formation of the Syria National Council and establishing ties with the entity formally or informally. Based in Istanbul, Turkey, the Syrian opposition has chosen Burhan Ghalioun, who is the director of the Centre d’Etudes sur l’Orient Contemporain in Paris, and a professor of political sociology at the Université de Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle).
For all practical purposes, the time for dictatorial regimes of the Middle East and Africa is over. Pakistan’s youngest foreign minister may spend a few hours going through archival files and formulate policy guidelines for the many Arab and Maghreb countries set to face public uprising.
The path for Islamabad is clear: either withdraw its ambassadors from Syria, Bahrain and Yemen or they should be assigned to express solidarity and support with the democracy loving people instead of the isolated regimes. For its geo-political significance and Bashar’s bloody campaign against his own people, Syria should be given the first priority. The government would have to bear in mind the consequences of a far-sighted policy as the Baathist regime’s chances of survival are dismal and the next dispensation should be friendly towards the country.
In terms of realpolitik and public diplomacy both, the Arab spring opens a new chapter for people-to-people contacts between the Pakistanis and the Middle Eastern and North African nations. Besides trade, Pakistan can assist such nations in building and strengthening election commissions, identity registrations, parliamentary and judicial services.
The writer is an investigative journalist and academic, with special interest in diplomacy, security and governance.Email: [email protected]