Politics & Policy

In Davos, Part Iv

Hope you had a good weekend, dear readers. Last Wednesday, we published Part I of these Davos Impromptus (here). And last Thursday, Part II (here). And Friday, Part III. Thanks for settling into Part IV. Its two stars will be the prime minister of Egypt and the president of Pakistan.

The president of Pakistan, you know (Musharraf). Who’s the prime minister of Egypt? His name is Ahmed Mahmoud Nazif, and he’s known as a reformer, a technocrat, a (relative) liberal–and brilliant. His Ph.D. is in computer engineering, from McGill. He may fairly be called the father of the Internet, in Egypt. And he became prime minister two years ago.

At the beginning of the Annual Meeting, I asked a well-known foreign-affairs analyst (American) whom I should seek to meet here in Davos: Who was interesting, who was unusual, who would be worth hearing? He had one suggestion: Nazif. It so happens that he meets with a small group of journalists. And that analyst’s advice turns out to be spot-on.

Born in 1952, Nazif is tall, solidly built, silver-maned–urbane. He speaks a fluent and elegant English. Actually, it’s amazing how many leaders in what is still referred to as the Third World speak a fluent and elegant English.

Nazif is introduced as “His Excellency,” and the journalists from the Middle East refer to him as “Your Excellency.” This strikes me as strange, in that the Egyptians–certainly government elites–tend to think of themselves as democrats. “His Excellency” is a strange title for a democrat. (Recall that it is one George Washington rejected at the end of the 18th century.) So, I ask Nazif about this: How did the prime minister of Egypt come to be called “His Excellency”? He sort of grins and says, “Well, 50 years ago it was ‘pasha.’”

He talks about the opening up of the Egyptian economy, the welcoming of investors–and boasts of 5 percent growth in Egypt. This is, inarguably, huge in the Arab world. And Nazif is hoping for 6 percent in ‘06.

He also speaks of electoral reform–”providing Egyptian voters with real choices,” instead of the illusion of choice. Nazif sounds like an outsider or dissenter, rather than prime minister. In the recent election, he says, something like 70 percent of the vote went to “the ruling party.” And “the dissenting vote”–note that these are his words–went to “the Islamic parties.” Nazif wants a proliferation of properly “political parties.”

He laments that turnout in the recent election was “only 25 percent.” And “you also have to look at which 25 percent: The sad thing is, most of the middle class–educated people–didn’t vote.” That is a sign of major defects in a political system.

Totally unprompted, Nazif brings up emergency law: Egyptians, he says, should not have to live under emergency law. Even if that law provides “leverage to fight terror,” people “deserve to live in a non-emergency situation.”

Speaking broadly about the Middle East, he says that men and women are “more inclined to peace” when their economic circumstances are good–when “they have something to lose.” He addresses this question of democracy and development: Which comes first? This is a chicken-and-egg game: and Nazif says that you can’t separate democracy and development, that “they go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t turn one on and the other off.”

Yes, when you make $3,000 a year, you may not want to hear much talk about democracy. You want food on the table–”and when you go to vote, that’s what drives you. But a free society is more capable of development” (than a non-free one).

So true, and utterly refreshing from a Middle Eastern leader. Nazif reminds me somewhat of Bassam Awadallah, the Jordanian finance minister, whom I wrote about last May, in those Davos-by-the-Dead-Sea notes.

What about tourism? someone asks–tourism to Egypt. Nazif replies that such tourism depends largely on terrorist acts–if they occur, no tourists; if they don’t–a better chance of them. Again, this is refreshing candor. He doesn’t whine about some defamation of Egypt in the international press.

One of my colleagues asks how “responsible” the Egyptian “political system” is for the lack of political openness in that country. Nazif’s answer? “Totally responsible.” He goes on to say that a one-party state is not a healthy condition, politically: “When one team gets all the good players, only that team wins the league championship,” ever. “We need a balanced system.” He further says that civil society is gaining strength in Egypt: “The old way of the government’s doing everything is going away.”

On the question of trade, he is unequivocal: “We are free-traders.” It is a sure way to help all involved.

Sensitive to his background, I ask about the effect of the Internet on political reform. He says that websites in Egypt have flowered. The political parties, the activist groups, have one–even the Muslim Brotherhood has one. Nazif reads this site, seeking to understand the Brotherhood. You have to be wary of “people who hide things”; better that they say what they mean, online and in other places.

And anyone can start a website in Egypt, according to Nazif: “You don’t have to go to the government for it, you don’t have to deal with bureaucracy, you don’t have to obtain a license”–no, you just do it. And the Internet has experienced “phenomenal growth.”

After the session, I buttonhole him, to try out something on him: I have heard, from at least one Egyptian–from others, as well–that U.S. aid breeds resentment. I mean, no one likes to be dependent on anyone. Hands that feed get bitten. What about that?

Nazif says that he does not agree with this. The reception of aid does not breed resentment, he says. What people resent is U.S. interference, U.S. meddling: telling other people what to do. He mentions Afghanistan and Iraq (I don’t argue with him, because this is not the time or place). Take the call for international observers of Egyptian elections: That is insulting to national pride.

Understandably.

Nonetheless, the U.S.-Egyptian-relationship is basically good, says Nazif. There are many positive aspects of it–but the media, all over, tend to focus on the negative.

‐By the way, on the table accommodating the prime minister and several journalists from the Arab world, a big, reeking plate of ham and salami is placed. It goes untouched.

Just reporting.

‐I was talking about sports figures the other day, and I left one out–Monica Seles. She’s here, making the rounds. Lucky for her, I don’t have my racquet, or else I’d challenge her to a match, and run her Serbian-Hungarian behind all over the . . .

Oh, sorry, just hallucinating.

‐Pele? Astonishingly short guy–comes up to about my neck. But he looks springy, lithe–like he could jump over your head, if he wanted. Even now. The way he walks across the floor, you know he’s an athlete.

‐In my years at Davos, I’ve seen President Musharraf several times–and he’s always amazingly cheerful. Fit, self-possessed, eager. This is really remarkable, for someone who has about the hardest job in the world (and who braves many assassination attempts). I have argued before that the two hardest jobs are president of Pakistan and prime minister of Israel–but we can talk about that later.

Like Nazif, Musharraf meets with a group of us journalists, and not long after. Will this conversation be on the record or off? Pakistan’s president says–in his distinctive and flavorful South Asian English–”I’m an upfront person. I am not a person to have secrecies and confidentialities.”

He expresses “my gratitude and the gratitude of my nation” for the world’s aid to Pakistan, following the earthquake there. About $6.5 billion in total has been given. Musharraf talks about touring the country by helicopter, immediately after the quake, “if only to give flag-showing.” He recites a multiplicity of facts about the disaster and the efforts to recover from it. “We must not only rebuild what was there, we must also build what should have been there in the first place.”

He then does a little economic bragging–or, he would say, fact-citing: “When I took over in 1999, Pakistan was considered a failed state. We have come a long way since then. We have experienced steady and substantial growth.” He speaks very fluently about economics, for a military man (or for just about anybody, really).

And, as I’ve noted before in Davos Impromptus, Musharraf’s English is replete with Britishisms–some of them a little musty. The other year, he talked about “these Qaeda chaps.” I also like the way he uses “no, sir”–e.g., “You think we’re just going to stand aside and do nothing? No, sir, we will act.” I especially enjoy this bit of Islamic-world-speak: “We inshallah will meet that challenge.”

Musharraf asserts that “we are in the lead role in the fight on terror.” He says that terrorism and extremism are two different things: Terrorism, you can meet by force, and you must. Extremism is a state of mind–and you can’t fight it militarily. So how do you combat extremism, which is at the root of terrorism? How do you keep the extremist from crossing over into terrorism?

He claims that Pakistan–”and I say this proudly”–is the only country in the world dealing with both terrorism and extremism, with an eye on both the short and the long terms. “Military action is not an end in itself. It only buys time for other instruments to be used in addressing the core issues.”

The conversation then turns to India–to Kashmir, in particular: “I say this with all sincerity: I am an extremely flexible man, and I’m bold enough to go for an out-of-the-box solution.” Sometime later, he adds: “But you can’t clap with one hand.” He confesses that, at this juncture, “dispute-resolution is not going well.”

That reminds me ever so slightly of President Ford’s remarkable statement: “The state of the Union is not good.”

Musharraf advises, “Leadership is not permanent, and no leader is permanent. We must resolve disputes when we can. We must grasp this fleeting moment–because fleeting moments come and go, and it is incumbent on leaders to grasp fleeting moments. Otherwise, they are not leaders.”

Let me provide a little Nordlinger translation (and it takes no genius to interpret so): For the time being, the Indian leadership is sane and the Pakistani leadership is sane. Who knows how long this fortunate condition will last? If knotty questions are settled now–between reasonable, moderate leaders, showing mutual goodwill–the India-Pakistan relationship will be able to weather nuttier leadership later.

Someone asks, “Why should Pakistan and India be able to have the A-bomb, and Iran not?” Musharraf says that the only good reason to have a nuclear weapon is to deter aggression. “When India went unconventional, we went unconventional”–because “the balance” was upset. “Ours is a threat perception; India’s may be a world projection.” So why should the mullahs be deprived of their nukes? “I don’t see a threat to Iran.” And as a general matter, “we are against nuclear proliferation.”

A word about A. Q. Khan: “He has affected very adversely the name and reputation of Pakistan.”

A word about Israel and the PA: “Who would have thought the whole Islamic world would be praying for the recovery of Ariel Sharon?” And, “Hamas must go for an approach of reconciliation. And if it does, the United States should accept that.”

An aphorism: “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.”

Finally, you may especially like this: The journalists invite Musharraf to condemn the United States for its recent raid against al Qaeda, on Pakistani soil. They sort of bait him into rebuking his American ally–holy Pakistani sovereignty, and all that.

Musharraf makes clear that Pakistan did not know about the raid in advance. (Therefore, it gave no permission.) He makes clear Pakistan’s disapproval of that raid. But he wonders why no one ever mentions the violation of Pakistani sovereignty by al Qaeda and other foreigners. Yes, Pakistan doesn’t like the United States operating on its soil. But what about these legions of terrorists? The United States is helping Pakistan get rid of them. The Pakistanis have captured Sudanese, Chechens, Uzbeks, Arabs, and more.

What about them? Don’t they count? Huh, huh?

As usual, Musharraf is more pro-Western–and more sensible–than Western journalists.

When it comes to the War on Terror, says Musharraf, “if Pakistan hasn’t done anything, nobody has done anything.” Pakistan has plowed 80,000 troops into the effort, suffering 300 casualties.

And he makes this observation: Acting against terrorists is not all that difficult; gathering intelligence on them is extremely difficult.

With that, Musharraf moves on to his next appointment. There have been a few tense moments, but he’s still smiling–still chipper, still bouncy, as though it’s a picnic to be president of Pakistan.

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