Pakistan – Egypt parallels

Pakistan – Egypt parallels

Since the beginning of Pakistan’s constitutional crisis, I’ve been thinking of potential parallels with Egypt. These remain fairly superficial, since after all the general political and strategic situation is quite different, and arguable opposition politics are more vibrant in Pakistan than they are in Egypt. Still, there are some similarities, notably the central role the issues of judicial independence and constitutional reform are playing, as well as the relationship between the military and executive power, the use of emergency laws, and of course the proposition that “better the devil you know” policies are best for stability. The WaPo op-ed below makes another argument drawing on the Egypt-Pakistan comparison, and while I don’t agree with some of it it offers food for thought.

Michael Gerson – Where We Went Wrong In Pakistan –

The current debate on Pakistan is a contest of historical analogies. Is Musharraf more like Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino dictator deposed in favor of a democracy? Or is he the shah of Iran, whose fall resulted in a radical, anti-American regime?

It is Musharraf’s own view that is most instructive. According to one report, he mentions a third ruler as his model — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak has survived by presenting America with a choice: his own oppressive, military rule or the triumph of the Islamists — the pharaoh or the fanatics. And he has done his best to guarantee that these are the only choices by destroying moderate, democratic opposition and forcing most dissent into the radical mosque.

Musharraf seems to be on the same path. While talking about fighting radicalism, his real energy has been devoted to imprisoning and harassing his democratic opponents. As in Egypt, this approach has elevated the Islamists. Polling by the nonprofit group Terror Free Tomorrow shows broad Pakistani support for democracy, coupled with considerable sympathy for radical groups that oppose the military regime. In the long run, propping up favorable dictators to fight terrorism causes a backlash.

Fortunately, there are options in Pakistan beyond the pharaoh or the fanatics — responsible senior leaders of the army and well-known democratic leaders. Additional pressure on Musharraf is not likely to result in an Islamist revolution. So it would make sense to cut aid to Pakistan if Musharraf does not back off from emergency rule — not humanitarian aid, or even counterterrorism aid, but military aid not directly tied to the fight against terrorists. This would give the army a stake in Pakistan’s return to democracy.

The Pakistani crisis is important for its own sake, but it is also a warning. Eventually, we will see street protests and crackdowns in Egypt — perhaps when Mubarak passes from the scene. And the same question will arise: Have we done enough to encourage political alternatives to Islamist groups? On the current course, the answer will be “no.”

I think the same kind of thinking is coming to the fore in Washington regarding military aid. Egyptian opposition activists I know off are divided on this issue, though. Many (probably most among the left and Islamists) are not interested in engaging the US one way or the other, either believing that it is deeply committed to maintaining a friendly regime in Cairo at all costs or that the US’ imperialist policies in the region mean no one should deal with them. Some, like Saad Eddin Ibrahim, advocate exactly the kind of carrot-and-sticks approach Gerson is talking about and would like to see US act on its claim to want democracy in Egypt, including by cutting aid. Yet a third type does not want pressure on the military to be associated with the cause of reformists, and is advocating against cutting military aid because they believe that getting the military on board for reform is essential and is more likely by working with them rather than against them. And then of course there are the reform-the-system-from-within types who mostly look at carrots and basically say the US should be patient and wait for the post-Mubarak era for the implementation of gradual reform.

Which one you believe in, at the end of the day, depends on whether you think a radical break with the current regime is possible (or desirable) or whether gradualism is best. The problem with the first is that it’s unpredictable; the problem with the second is that we’ve been down that road before and it had yielded negative results. The US, as a major player in Egypt’s domestic politics at the strategic level, will almost certainly opt for gradualism. If it is serious about democratization (and right now it looks like it’s not), it’s going to have to devise a new formula for muscular gradualism, because the old formula plainly did not work. The job of those democracy activists who are willing to engage the US is to provide some leadership and ideas about how they can do that, and start convincing the Egyptian political elite that it might be in its best interests to follow suit. In Pakistan, they have pragmatic opposition political leaders that can provide these alternatives, however flawed. Egypt for now doesn’t.