While all eyes are focused on the convulsions shaking the Arab world, the real crisis to watch may be in Pakistan. The second murder in two months of a politician seeking to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy law (habitually used as a tool to terrorize religious minorities), and a roiling controversy over an American CIA contractor being held for murder despite his diplomatic immunity, are threatening to collapse Pakistan’s three-year-old experiment in democracy and break its alliance with the United States.
Could this be the fate of Egypt several years down the road? When America broke with Pakistan’s military strongman Pervez Musharraf and helped to usher in an elected government friendly to the West in 2008, media across the political spectrum were filled with optimism about the promise of democracy. Pakistan has a far more robust liberal tradition than Egypt. Yet three years later, Pakistan is staring into the abyss. What makes us think democracy in Egypt will turn out any better?
Have a look at three brief, readable, and very disturbing accounts of the current situation in Pakistan. The first is by Lisa Curtis, a Pakistan expert at the Heritage Foundation who has been optimistic about Pakistani democracy in the past, the second by Peter Preston in the Guardian, and the third from one of Pakistan’s leading human rights activists, Asma Jahangir. And here is a brief note that suggests Pakistani democracy is actually making the diplomatic immunity dispute harder to resolve.
To be fair, it’s at least possible to look at all this another way. Consider this piece by Daniel Twining, once a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain. Twining attributes Pakistan’s weak democracy and its slide toward Islamism to America’s history of support for the “four military strongmen whose undemocratic rule spanned half the nation’s history.”
I find this unconvincing. Pakistan has actually never had a genuinely liberal democratic government (as I argue in “Democracy Myth“). America supported whatever government was in place in Pakistan, whether superficially democratic or not, because that’s what we had to deal with.
The countries that are now India and Pakistan were once united under British rule. They had the same tradition of British-influenced democratic liberalism among the elite. Yet after independence and partition, the political histories of the two countries sharply diverged. India sustained a democracy, while Pakistan failed to do so. The United States didn’t cause that divergent evolution, and we couldn’t have stopped it if we’d tried. Of course, we have tried to push Pakistan toward democracy over the past three years, and are manifestly failing in that task due to forces beyond our control.
Today, the lawyers who were supposed to have embodied Pakistan’s suppressed liberal democratic tradition shower Islamist political assassins with rose petals and volunteer to defend them for free. Nawaz Sharif, naively touted in the West as a savior of Pakistani democracy when Musharraf was pushed from power, fans the flames of anti-Americanism and fundamentalism as a way of nudging Pakistan’s pro-American leaders aside. And the current government, the motor of Pakistan’s hoped-for shift toward liberalism, cowers in fear, unable to defend its own murdered supporters from the wrath of a rising Islamic tide. All of which is happening in a country with nuclear weapons.
Maybe Egypt’s popular revolt and its new generation of young educated activists will make for a different outcome. But the closer look at the leadership of the anti-Mubarak forces I take in the current issue of NATIONAL REVIEW suggests that Mubarak’s foes are not the liberal democrats of our dreams.
It’s also interesting to note that the paradoxical results of the widely discussed Pew Poll of Egypt (favoring modernization and democracy, while also favoring illiberal Islamic practices) are very similar to Pew Poll results for Pakistan. With similar majorities in both countries overwhelming a thin layer of Westernized liberals, there is reason to believe that political evolution in both Egypt and Pakistan may follow a similar trajectory.