Pervez Hoodbhoy's attack on Musharraf repeats the usual liberal pieties. Musharraf is not perfect, but a democratically elected leader may well be worseby Emran Mian / December 16, 2006 / Leave a comment
Pervez Hoodbhoy’s critique of General Pervez Musharraf as a leader and as an author, in last month’s Prospect, is depressingly familiar. Of course we wish that Pakistan was a more liberal and democratic society. Of course it faces massive social and economic problems. But simply repeating the same liberal pieties about instituting democracy and strengthening civil society won’t change the situation. Musharraf, on the other hand, just might.
If Musharraf’s memoir, the subject of Hoodbhoy’s review, is to be believed, Musharraf may be the most liberal leader that Pakistan has ever had. That is a strange thing to say of a general who came to power through an armed coup, but the book provides ample evidence of the direction that Musharraf wants to take.
The most striking chapter is about women’s rights in Pakistan. Musharraf cites the case of Mukhtaran Mai, a victim of “honour rape” who now runs schools and a crisis centre. It is unusual for a Pakistani politician to acknowledge, let alone condemn, this custom. Musharraf, quite rightly, didn’t intervene in the legal proceedings at the time, but in the book explains that he sent her money to support her cause when he first heard about the case, and that his government has since spent around £150,000 improving facilities for women in her village.
There are certainly massive problems for women in Pakistan. Human rights activists suggest that a woman is raped in Pakistan every two hours. As Hoodbhoy points out, Musharraf’s government recently failed to enact a revision of the rape laws, which would make the burden of proof placed on the prosecution more realistic (a successful rape prosecution currently requires four male witnesses to the act). However, that climbdown came in the face of intense political opposition—the uncomfortable reality is that it was democracy that prevented the reform, not the dictator. Yet Musharraf has persisted, and on 15th November—after Hoodbhoy’s piece was written—the government succeeded in getting a revision through the lower house (the upper house is yet to consider the proposal). To offer just a flavour of the criticism of the new law, the leader of Pakistan’s largest coalition of religious parties, a major force in the legislature, has suggested that the changes will turn Pakistan “into a free sex society.”
In another key part of his book, Musharraf describes having to watch a lashing during the period of martial law imposed under his predecessor, Zia ul-Haq. General Zia pandered to the Islamists to shore up political support and, even now, there may be a majority in Pakistan who would support the reintroduction of such punishments—during times of instability, citizens often unleash their frustrations on criminals. However, on reading Musharraf’s lurid account of the lashing, you feel confident that he would never institute such a change, regardless of the political benefits.
We have further evidence of his stance on sentencing from the recent case of Mirza Tahir Hussain, a Briton sentenced to death by a Sharia court, whose case was pressed by Prince Charles during his recent visit to Pakistan. The general listened; on 16th November Hussain’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and a day later he was freed. Again, Musharraf’s instinct was to make the liberal choice in the teeth of opposition from the religious right.
Hoodbhoy also has harsh words for Musharraf’s conduct in the war on terror. Here too, the other side is worth considering. Musharraf’s book opens with a thrilling account of the assassination attempts that he has survived—including one plotted by members of his own armed forces. His co-operation with the US and Britain is, needless to say, also extremely unpopular with sections of the Pakistani public. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s army and intelligence services have arrested hundreds of al Qaeda operatives, including men from the top tier of the leadership.
We must, of course, continue to scrutinise Musharraf’s actions against terrorism, not least because there have also been wider operations, such as the recent bombing of a madrassa in western Pakistan, which killed 80 people, mostly civilians. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Musharraf faces personal danger as he attempts to dismantle jihadist networks in Pakistan—a danger that civilian leaders, who are even more unpopular than Musharraf with elements of the armed forces, may be unwilling to face. The prospects of success are also affected by the fact that no Pakistani government has ever fully controlled the border regions where most of the jihadists and the Taliban are operating. Even at official checkpoints, border guards are more likely to be loyal to (or to fear) local feudal chiefs than the distant federal government.
Hoodbhoy also neglects Musharraf’s economic agenda. Perhaps Musharraf’s outstanding achievement has been to appoint a team of technocrats, including the current prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, to improve Pakistan’s economy. This team has succeeded in almost doubling GDP, from $65bn to $125bn, over the last six years; annual per capita income has risen from $460 to $800, and foreign exchange reserves are up to $12.5bn from the depressing sum of $300m.
It is nice to think that a democratically elected leader in Pakistan would have achieved similar results—but the record provides no cause for optimism. Pakistan’s feudal style of party politics means that those who come to power through the ballot box are beholden to many and need to repay those favours while in office. Their economic record is disastrous and the “democratic decade” that preceded Musharraf’s rule saw a doubling in the number of people living below the poverty line.
Nevertheless, Musharraf has followed policies that may make Pakistan a more robust democracy in the future. One of his key reforms has been to introduce a new level of local government through which the civil service bureaucracy of each district has been placed under democratic constraint. That reform has been accompanied by the setting aside of seats for women and non-Muslim minorities. The government’s education programme, focusing on basic literacy as well as on expanding secondary and higher education, may also help democracy take root. The issue of Kashmir and Pakistan’s historic enmity against India is another reason why the military has remained so dominant in the political sphere. Musharraf, as a successful military commander, the man who supposedly outfoxed the Indian army in Kargil in 1999, has more political capital than anyone else to make a deal with India—and he seems sincere in his desire to do so.
Ultimately, Musharraf’s instincts may well be secular and liberal, but his scope for political maneouvre is limited. Still, a democratically elected leader will be in the same position—and will lack some of the structural advantages that Musharraf has as the leader of the armed forces. Hoodbhoy is right to say that Musharraf will never be a reliable ally in the war on terror and that he will frequently disappoint on issues of social policy. The problem, however, is that given the conservatism of powerful sections of Pakistani society, and the corruption and incompetence rank in the political class, Musharraf is, in all likelihood, the country’s best hope for stability alongside gradual economic and social progress.