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A False Step in Musharraf's High-Wire Act

Pakistani leader's proposal for a new political system doesn't fit his country.

July 29, 2002|AMIR TAHERI

The Indians love to hate him. The Europeans are frowning at him. The fundamentalists are issuing death threats against him. Pakistan's politicians are throwing mud at him. And even the Americans, who only recently applauded him, are now grumbling.

The man in question, of course, is Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf. Paradoxically, the fact that almost everyone seems to be unhappy with him right now may well be a sign that he is doing something right.

What is it that Musharraf is doing that so many do not like?

The Indians do not like him because he has turned out to not be the typical "military dictator" that Pakistan has produced from time to time. His austere lifestyle, his refusal to build a cult of personality and the fact that he has not thrown thousands of opponents in prison distinguish him from previous dictators. Musharraf also has distinguished himself from former dictators by refusing to be drawn into a dangerous showdown with India.

The Europeans criticize Musharraf because he is not complying with their standards of human rights; instead he opts to not offend the religious beliefs of the majority of Pakistanis.

Pakistan's professional politicians dislike Musharraf because he has deprived them of business. For decades, the business of politics in Pakistan has been a politics of business. Politicians owe various Pakistani state banks about $30 billion in overdue loans. In Pakistan, people enter politics to get their hand into the cookie jar, not to manage the affairs of society.

The Americans frown at Musharraf because he has not sent troops to close all the madrasas (religious schools). Also, he has insisted that due process be respected when alleged terrorists are put on trial.

Because Musharraf holds one of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in the world right now, the attacks launched against him are both unfair and counterproductive.

The world needs a stable Pakistan to root out the remainder of the Al Qaeda terrorist gang and to defuse the situation on the subcontinent.

To be sure, predictions about Pakistan heading for "an Islamic explosion" have proved utterly out of place. The country has experienced several terrorist attacks in recent months. These incidents, while tragic, do not amount to a major threat to Pakistan's stability. And there is growing evidence that there is no significant constituency for the ideology of terror anywhere in Pakistan. However, there are signs that Musharraf may be putting himself on a slippery slope. He is proposing constitutional changes that appear to be ill-conceived and half-baked. At the root of the problem is his misunderstanding of what is called "the Turkish model."

Put simply, the Turkish model is based on two key principles: a constitutional system that guarantees Turkey's secular character and an acknowledgment of the role of the armed forces as guardians and protectors of the constitution. Since the 1920s, the Turkish army has intervened four times to "correct" the course of the nation's politics by changing the government of the day. In every case, the generals took care to maintain a line between the military and the civilian authorities.

Musharraf, however, is proposing a system under which he would retain his position as president while remaining commander of the armed forces. He also wants to give the presidency executive powers that would render the position of the prime minister superfluous. What he is proposing is more like the Arab model of military regimes than what occurs in Turkey.

In any case, the question remains whether the Turkish model is applicable to Pakistan or, indeed, to any other Muslim country. The Algerians and the Tunisians have flirted with the Turkish model in different ways, while the Sudanese too have been tempted by it at different times. The Turkish model now is being looked at by many Iraqis as they think of the post-Saddam Hussein era. Because most Muslim states lack credible political institutions, the army is often regarded as the only organ of state around which a national system could be formed.

However, the Turkish model of governance may not be suitable for some Muslim nations. It is based on a strong sense of Turkish national--one might even say racial--identity. It has denied substantial minorities, such as the Kurds and ethnic Arabs, a chance for self-definition and self-expression within the system, thus provoking decades of tension and even war.

Pakistan is made up of several "nations" with different histories, cultures and languages, united only by their common Islamic faith. To introduce the Turkish concept of secularism into Pakistan would amount to a denial of its founding principle.

Musharraf's idea to create a national security council based on the Turkish model is a good one. Such a council could act as a watchdog to prevent the armed forces and the civilian government from exceeding their legal powers or using their positions for self-enrichment.

For the exercise to succeed, however, it is important that the army stay out of day-to-day politics. Musharraf wants it both ways. And this may be his first major mistake.


Amir Taheri is a writer for Arab News. E-mail:

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