The ultimate guardians of the national interest

Following the remarkable events in Egypt over the last five days has been truly a paradigm changing experience. Even a cynic like me can’t help being taken in by the idea that this is a genuine revolution, contrary to the CNN and Fox news tickers of chaos, crisis, etc. Egypt and Burma have always fascinated me in their similarities in various ways to Pakistan. I guess growing up in post-Ziaist Pakistan, I have a morbid fascination for countries with a political vacuum. Almost a year ago, I remember reading a brilliant article by Adam Shatz about Egypt’s political vacuum and thinking that Pakistan was lucky, by contrast, in that it at least had a political class and a political tradition, no matter how flawed.

This paragraph in Shatz’s article (in which he quotes the Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrullah) has stayed in my mind over the last year:

As Hani Shukrallah, an editor at Al-Shorouk, one of the new independent papers, points out, ‘the regime has pursued a deliberate policy of selective repression based on class.’ Shukrallah, a veteran of the student left of the 1970s, illustrated this by describing an aerial photograph of a Kifaya demonstration in downtown Cairo. ‘You can see three circles: the first is composed of the demonstrators, a few hundred people. Around them is a circle of several thousand police officers, and around the police is the people. The people are onlookers, spectators. The middle-class professionals in Kifaya can chant slogans like “Down with Mubarak” because they risk, at worst, a beating. But most Egyptians live in a world where anything goes, where they’re treated like barbarians who need to be conquered, and women are molested by the security forces.

It reminded me a lot of the pictures you see from the protests in places like Lahore and Islamabad against the emergency rule. What it made me realize is that ultimately, every authoritarian regime rules, not by force, but by the tacit consent of a small but influential class of urban opinion-makers. (When Musharraf lost the support of this class, he was doomed). I remember reading a quote by Anatol Lieven in which he made the observation that dictatorship in Pakistan has always been a relatively “soft” one. I don’t know whether Lieven was right or wrong. Certainly, the arm of the Pakistani state has not been soft on those it has – at various times – perceived to be outside the limits prescribed by Pakistani nationalism. But it is correct to say that the brilliance of the Pakistani military regimes has been that they have always left a great degree of breathing room to those whom it accepts as part of the class whose own institutional interests the Pakistani army represents. The kinds of opinions that the Pakistani English newspapers are able to express are an example of this. And this is what came to my mind when I read Shukrullah’s description of the three circles – the inner circle of the privileged, well-connected urban middle class, surrounded by the arms of the state and surrounding both of them, the rest of the population.

Maybe what we are constantly complaining about as the moral failure of the military is really just the destiny of resource-poor, post-colonial states with a small but well-connected class of modernist nationalists at the helm. Maybe it’s not really worth complaining about because it’s a structural issue. It fascinates me that the Egyptian military, for example, is looked at, by the protestors, as a saviour or at the very least as a potential arbitrator against the current regime. In a way, the army’s arrival to save the Cairo Museum from looters and the collective sigh of relief at this arrival symbolizes the basic dilemma – the military is always seen as a saviour because it is better organized and more developed. Here’s a (terrible) analogy: As the youngest in a family of five, I was always resentful of everyone else’s ability to make better decisions for me. I always wanted to do things by myself but had this strange, rebellious streak where I would rebel to be contrary, make really stupid decisions and then breathe a sigh of relief as someone smarter and older took control of the situation for me. Structurally, the situation is that the political class is so stunted, so far behind in development to the overdeveloped, nationalist military that the modernists always end up running back into the warm cocoon of the military’s embrace. The alternative is just too horrifying to contemplate. What is this but a form of colonialism? It’s no coincidence then, that political transitions often consist of the various actors courting the military’s good favour for a temporary shift in the status quo.

But it’s not good to be so pessimistic. It’ll be interesting to see how Omar Suleiman’s appointment as Vice President will go down.

“What concerns us now is this is clearly a military takeover,” said Mr. Shahin. “I would not be surprised if Mubarak disappears tomorrow or after tomorrow.


12 responses to “The ultimate guardians of the national interest

  1. Rathesh

    I was wondering if the Iranian revolution was also welcomed in this manner across the world .

    What i feel is this movement/revolution cannot be successful or end up being good for the people of Egypt unless someone with a moral stature of say Nelson Mandela takes control of the proceedings.

  2. Shahid

    We had a long debate on the nature of the Pakistani military rules when Ang San Suu Kyi was being released. The flexibility, the nature of allowing political breathing space and dissent and the nature of government has differed from the very start compared to juntas where it is all military. Perhaps had it not been for Mirza, a quasi military-bureaucracy man who imposed martial law, and had it been a genuine military takeover from the very first, we would have gone on a path similar to juntas found in SE Asia or Africa. Ayub brought in a handful of politicians, ZAB being one, instead of just relying on uniforms. That sets a precedent.

    Also, why force the english newspapers to chant slogans for democracy when a) they can’t do shit b) half their readership is your supporter anyways c) will open you to international criticism if you stomp on them

    I’ll accept Egypt’s military was an unknown political game maker to me. I never paid attention to it and my interests are very narrow. The commercial interests of the army in Egypt have me fascinated now, for the time being at least.

    And even though I kind of agree with Lieven’s statement and it might be entirely true, I am inclined to disregard it for various reasons, including his forthcoming book. We all know how much intellectual and academic honesty one has to sell before getting access to the Pakmil. You don’t get near to them unless you’re a cheerleader.

  3. Shahid

    Second para should read, why force not to chant slogans…

  4. Rabia

    rathesh, the parallels between egypt & obama now and carter and iran in 79 are really eery aren’t they? personally i think it’s unfair to both carter and obama to judge them as failures for not being able to “handle” these events. How can anyone “handle” these uprisings any better? It’s really impossible on a moral level for any right thinking person to support the Shah or Mobarak – one can only hope that the situation in Egypt turns out differently than Iran.

  5. Rabia

    btw, speaking of clueless western reactions to 79, Michel Foucault’s words are quite funny:

    “One thing must be clear. By “Islamic government,” nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control. ”


  6. TLW

    Egypt and Burma have always fascinated me in their similarities in various ways to Pakistan

    Haha, me too, especially Burma.

    The kinds of opinions that the Pakistani English newspapers are able to express are an example of this

    I mentioned this to my father 11 years ago, when he first bought me a copy of the Friday Times, casue I said I liked the political cartoons. 😉

    protests in places like Lahore and Islamabad against the emergency rule

    Or like the vigils against the murder of Salman Taseer and the Blasphemy law.

    the political class is so stunted, so far behind in development to the overdeveloped

    Maybe not. President Zardari has evolved in a way. He was the only one who realised the full implications of neo-liberal Pakistan in the mid-1990’s and became individually very, very rich.

    unless someone with a moral stature of say Nelson Mandela takes control
    Yaar, Rathesh, us South Asian middle class folk shouldn’t look for saviours on horseback. Personal autonomy FTW.

    A very toucing piece Rabia.

  7. TLW

    We all know how much intellectual and academic honesty one has to sell before getting access to the Pakmil. You don’t get near to them unless you’re a cheerleader.

    Or unless you’ve been observing retired officers somewhat carefully.
    Good observations Shahid bhai, but please to notice how the most critical voices on the military are Ayaz Amir (retired Captain, now PML-N), and Kamran Shafi (retired Major, now PPP). I am a bit optimistic. If (middle class) society’s becoming more Islamic, influenced the army’s personnel to become more religious, maybe if the Middle Class, and the Elite class came to accept democracy more, it could influence the Army’s personnel as well.

    • Shahid

      Early bird retired faujis turned politicos are a different lot. The high ranking retired officer turned democrat are all a farce; opportunist crapholes. I was talking more about the academic access. Shuja Nawaz, Brian Cloughley, official historian Maj Gen Shaukat Reza, Lieven, the whole lot. Tell me one historian who was given access to archives and he came out with a critical book. Or he did not a Pak Army underwear.

    • TLW

      Siddique Salik’s “Witness To Surrender”. But meh, the only documents left classified on that country sized grave are those generated by the US and India, and consequently in Delhi and Washington.

      But yeah you’ve got a larger point; maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated by Wikileaks, I’m shocked that the most powerful institutions in the west (the corporations) allow academic info to escape their hands.

    • TLW

      Shahid (and Rabia), if you want good insight into the (anti-)thinking of our brasshats, my recommendation would be to do what I do, critically read foreign sources which are easily available, and try and filter out the bias. Then read the Pakistani source (or propaganda) and critically try and get at some median ground.

      Personally two things, I would love to get my hands on

      1) The National Security Agency’s Pakistan intercept reports (if those guys aren’t generating those, then US taxpayers are wasting their money)

      2) And from some of the really freaky stories I’ve heard going around Pakistan, the raw intelligence reports that Indian intelligence cells inside the Pakistan Army generate.

  8. Shahid

    last sentence : *did not wear

  9. actually u understand it na then what is the problem.

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