PolEcReMo. My Take

Shah Mahmood Qureshi the new Prime Minister?

Posted in Politics by Ali Athar on May 1, 2009

While the whole nation is resorting to conspiracy theories to explain even the most basic things, let me also speculate about an important event that is about to happen. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, our Foreign Minister, might get the slot for Prime Minister of Pakistan in place of the incumbent Yusuf Raza Gilani. So, why I say that? Please read on.

The successful completion of the lawyers’ “Long March” and the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has severly detrimented the political standing of President Asif Ali Zardari. He was let down by his advisers like Governor Salmaan Taseer and Interior Adviser Rehman Malik into believing that the lawyers pose no threat and that even the support of Nawaz Sharif won’t muster enough street power to force the government to restore the CJ. But, massive popularity (at least in the urban Punjab) for Iftikhar Chaudhry forced the government to restore him. This reduced the popularity graph of the President, but at the same time enhanced the image of PM Gilani who was constantly portrayed by media as doing the right thing (restore the CJ, allying with PML-N), but unable to accomplish it because of forces beyond him (the presidency?). In fact, it was also reported by the media that PM Gilani opposed the Governor’s rule in Punjab and wanted to restore Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif as soon as possible. Hence, what was happening was that all the good things were being attributed to the PM, and all the bad things were being pointed to the President.

Then, there is the issue of PM Gilani asserting himself to the detriment of President Zardari. According to newspaper reports, Gilani sided with Gen Ashfaq Kayani to restore the CJ and CM Shahbaz Sharif. He also sacked Maj Gen Mahmud Ali Durrani, the National Security Adviser, for not consulting him prior to leaking the identity of Ajmal Kasab. This episode was a snub for Zardari, as he was the one who hired Durrani at the first place and wanted to see him around longer. Gilani also appears closer to the Sharif brothers and the PML-N mitigating the traditional rivalry between the two parties that has been the bane of voters for the last two decades. It has been along these lines that two parties extract votes from the populace and Gilani is trying to dilute them. So in short, Zardari is unhappy with Gilani and he can argue with the party that why Gilani has to removed as the PM.

But first, Zardari needs to gain the political capital he lost in the CJ/CM episode. Recently, he called the editors and columnists of major newspapers to the presidency and explained to them his position. They have been writing positive articles about him since. Next he needs to remove the advisers that are political liabilities for him. (The recent editorial of The News mentions Taseer being removed). And then, Zardari will go for checkmate. He will remove Gilani and appoint Shah Mahmood Qureshi as the new Prime Minister.

Why Qureshi? Because Qureshi is urbane, suave minister from Multan who is the current Foreign Minister (next in line only to the Prime Minister). He is perhaps the only PPP leader to have the support of the so-called liberal/secular elite of Pakistan. His political views are much in line with Zardari’s; like war on terrorism, tackling the financial burden through IMF and Friends of Pakistan, and normalizing relations with India and Afghanistan, etc. Moreover, Qureshi is a new entrant to PPP, only being nominated as President PPP Punjab in 2006. Therefore, he will not have created a big following within the party, unlike Gilani who has been PPP’s vice chairman since 1998 and despite 5 years of incarceration, he didn’t buy his way out of jail and so will retain a larger following. Therefore, Qureshi can’t be a nuisance to Zardari as Gilani could be. And last but not the least, Qureshi’s performance as the Foreign Minister has been exemplary. His dealings with India after the Mumbai attacks made headlines and his performace vis-a-vis America  has been appreciable. Therefore, Zardari can build his case in front of the people about this change.

So why this is about to happen now? Recently Qureshi was in Multan building the case for war on terror and appealing for national consensus and political stability – not the most critical statements for a Foreign Minister. And Qureshi was also present in the high-powered meeting of the President, PM, COAS and ANP chief to discuss the challenges of militancy in Swat and FATA. It seems that Qureshi has more on his plate than a usual Foreign Minister.

I would say that Shah Mahmood Qureshi is definately on the move. If not the PM now, we would surely see him there once before the current government dissolves.

The Saudi Strategy

Posted in Geopolitics, Politics by Ali Athar on August 15, 2008

Allow me to state some facts: 1) the recently concluded military deal between British and Saudi governments will deliver 72 Eurofighter Typhoons to Saudi Arabia, which makes it one of the six and the only country outside Western Europe to operate the most sophisticated aircraft. This deal places the Saudis just behind the world’s five nuclear powers, Japan, Germany and India in terms of annual military expenditure. 2) The Saudi King Abdullah in 2007 helped unite the warring factions of Hamas and Fatah, and launched a peace initiative between Israel and Palestine. Although the effort failed, it depicts the changing attitudes of Saudi monarchy towards the decades old conflict if we compare it to the anti-Zionist and pan-Islamic stand of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. 3) And of course, the Saudi government is sitting on 262 billion barrels of oil, the largest in the world.

This is the image of a regional power, whose power outgrows its region, Arabia. Conceivably, the Saudi monarchy could be planning and implementing policies for such influence since its independence in 1932, or possibly luck continually stayed on its side as the monarchy persevered external and internal threats. But, the fact of the matter is that we have on our hands the region’s most stable state, armed with the latest western weaponry and unending oil money that is confident in itself to make changes in the world according to its own interests. They have on their side the alliance of the West, the well-wishes of the fellow Muslim countries, and a tamer local populace thanks to the combination of authoritarian diktat and frivolous social spending.

Most of the modern history of Saudi Arabia or more specifically the area of Hejaz, the western and the more populated part of the kingdom, has seen the yoke of foreign rule. The Ottomans who ruled Hejaz for more than 400 years were mostly Turks, which exacerbated the Arab-Turk power struggle towards the end of their rule. Their struggle was then molded into a definite shape by the British agent T.E. Lawrence (famously called the Lawrence of Arabia) who gave the Arabs hope that they too could one day govern themselves. However, the defeat and breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War and the rise of Al-Saud family didn’t bring stability to the region. It took 14 more years for then King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud to actually unify the kingdom into its present form in 1932. Then, the discovery of oil in 1938 helped sow the seeds of future prosperity, but not without the fundamentalist ideology impacting its society and other Muslim nations.

The rise of the House of Saud imbued the future kingdom with puritan version of Islam or Wahhabism. The founding prince of Saud dynasty sought the help of Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab in the 18th century, the ideologue who professed the strictest application of Islam, to defeat the rival tribes. Hence, the enforcement of Wahhabi Islam became inevitable in modern Saudi Arabia, not only because it led the House of Saud to victory, but also because the successive kings thought of it as a unifying force. This version was later exported to other Muslim countries, specifically to the South and Central Asia in the name of aggrandizing the concept of “Ummah.” The New York Times reporter Thomas L. Friedman observed a portrait of King Faisal in a Pakistani madrassa near the northwestern town of Peshawar.

All of this may be true, but the Saudi model of influence was not always on the ascent in the Arab and Muslim world. The Baath model in Iraq and Syria, the pan-Arab model of Gamal Abdel Nasser, or even the Islamist model of Sayyid Qutb (implemented by al-Qaeda) had been threat at various times to the generally pro-American stance of the Saudi and other Gulf countries. It was a legitimate threat because all of the above models were perceived anti-colonialist and/or anti-imperialist unlike the Saudi model, and thus gained far more public support. But, failure to free the population of economic and political hardships, all of these political and social movements lost the same public support. Thus, what remained was the neoliberal, free market, and pro-West monarchial paradigm represented chiefly by the Saudi kings.

On the economic front, the Saudi economy is shifting from oil manufacturing to oil-based products. The primary example is that of SABIC, one of the world’s largest chemicals fertilizers company. Although, the economy would continue to be based on oil in the near future, but with projects like the $26bn King Abdullah Economic City on the coast of Red Sea, the country’s infrastructure, energy, ports and shipping industries will be getting a major boost. Even Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s 4.4% stake in the Citigroup says a lot about the diversification of Saudi money, as he too is a member of the royal family.

Militarily, the Royal Saudi Air Force will be getting the 72 Typhoons in the near future, which would be joining the 110 American F-15’s and the 100 European Tornados, making RSAF having the qualitative edge matched only by the Israeli Air Force in the region. Similarly, Saudi Army has the latest 380 M1 Abrams tank, the Main Battle Tank of the United States Army. These acquisitions were only possible because Saudi Arabia spends up to $21bn annually on military hardware. Perhaps, Matt Damon’s character in the movie Syriana was off the mark when he said that “a hundred years ago you were living in tents out here in the desert chopping each other’s heads off and that’s where you’ll be in another hundred years.”

In the foreign policy arena, being pragmatic is the best way to describe the Saudi putsch. They let the Israeli jets use their airspace in 1984 when they were on their way to bomb the Osiraq Nuclear plant in Iraq, because a Baathist Iraq was a threat to Saudi Arabia. But, such an intrusion was clearly disapproved when America invaded Iraq in 2003, thus leading to evicting the American military presence on Saudi land, which was earlier invited at the onset of Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. At first, it was the threat from Saddam Hussein, and later it was the following the public appeal. On the other hand, the year 2008 featured the first Saudi king to visit the Vatican and holding a conference in Madrid promoting religious peace.

This is the Saudi Arabia that is on its way to become the regional superpower. Only Israel can match its domination, but Israel needs Saudi more than Saudi needs Israel because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As long as Turkey is looking towards EU for prosperity, the stage is set for the desert kingdom to dominate the Middle East, which has no threat as far north as Europe and as east as India. Combined with the Wahhabi ideology, petrodollars, and a pragmatic foreign policy backed by a strong military, the Saudi monarchy is witnessing the growth of its power that has an impact far beyond its borders. This is the finest case of oil money being well spent as opposed to its annoying neighbor Iran, which thinks it can challenge the sole superpower with its aged Soviet weaponry, rusting industrial houses, a rigid and dangerous foreign policy and which exports its crude oil to buy back refined oil because it lacks adequate oil refineries.

Movie Review: Khamosh Pani (2003)

Posted in Movies, Religion by Ali Athar on July 18, 2008

I pray too, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think.

Zubeida’s disappointment with her ex-lover Saleem described the essence of the film Khamosh Pani, or Silent Waters. The unending struggle between literalist interpretation of religion and a more moderate approach to it has been captured beautifully in the 1979 Charkhi village in the province of Punjab. The year also marked the advent of the Zia’s Islamic value system imposed on the country, which we saw being implicated in the small dusty Punjabi village. We see the simple lifestyle of the villagers being transformed by the politically-oriented city boys of Lahore.

Certainly, Lahori influence on the Charkhi village is not unprecedented. Islamic history is replete with such examples where the conservative literalists that advocated imitation of the Islamic jurisprudence clashed with the liberal reformers who supported broadening of the sources of understanding by reconciling Western philosophies with their Islamic counterparts. Where the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma’mun’s reign of religious and cultural open-mindedness catapulted Islamic arts and sciences and ushered the Islamic Golden Age, the later Abbasid Al-Qadir’s outlawing of Mu’tazili school effectively ended the philosophy in Islamic thought. The great philosopher Ibn-Sina’s (Avicenna) reconciling of Western thought with Islamic overtone was later challenged by Al-Ghazali (Algazel) who rejected Hellenic philosophy as mere heresy. Moorish Spain saw similar trends as Abd-ar-Rahman III’s reign featured freedom of religion, but the later invasions of the conservative Almohad Berbers saw Jew and Christians being persecuted and expelled from Iberian peninsula. Khamosh Pani portrays this classical scuffle in a Punjabi flavor in the modern post-partition era where Charkhi’s way of live is under siege.

Khamosh Pani, directed by Sabiha Sumer, a filmmaker of Pakistani descent, is a story of middle-aged woman named Ayesha who lives with her son Saleem in the village in central Punjab. After her husband’s death, she is left with her only son, who in turn is in love with the local girl, Zubeida. All is well until two religio-political students enter the village. With their sugar-coated message of spiritual rejuvenation, these two set in motion the process of religious partisanship based on their rigid interpretation of piousness. Later, these devouts storm the Sikh yatrees, who came to the village for their annual pilgrimage

One can easily denounce the methods of those two boys as self-serving and agenda-oriented, but seeing the locals turning into marauding machines (in one part, we see the local villagers armed with bamboo sticks charging through the market to threaten the Sikh pilgrims) can terrify just about anybody. May be this could help explain Veero’s loss of hope for his son towards the end of the movie as he too has crossed the Rubicon and she does the unthinkable.

The film is wedded with so many explicit and implicit incidents, that to interpret them in a single article is not possible. The local barber’s outburst at the mullah that “Do I need a kid like you to tell me what Allah has or hasn’t decreed,” the mullah’s raising of girl school’s walls so that “they could be confined to their homes, ” and the mullah’s rendering of VCR as “an American machine” speak volume of narrow-mindedness of the religio-political inclined mullah.

The film ends on an interesting, but cynical note. We see two advertisements; one says “crescent” and the other “liberty.” The former being the part of the national flag of Pakistan and its Islamic character and the latter being its true intention behind its founding. But, this idealism was crushed early on at the hands of inept rulers paving the way for more organized clergy to step in. Now, these two adverts could very well be the classical dichotomy undermining the existence of the country.

Movie Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Posted in Movies by Ali Athar on April 9, 2008

It’s difficult to start a revolution, even more difficult to sustain one, and still more difficult to win one.

These were the words that defined the epic struggle of Algeria against the French occupation; captured meticulously on celluloid by Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo in his docudrama The Battle of Algiers. This 1966 black-and-white narrative was shot around the neighborhood of Casbah, in downtown Algiers, couple of years after Algeria gained independence from France in 1962. The gruesome recreation of French persecution of the Algerian populace to sustain control appalled the world and the film stayed banned in France for many years.

Many watchers will perceive Algiers’ vintage documentary style and finely crafted battle scenes to be actual war footage. In fact the realism of its skirmish settings became synonymous with guerrilla tactics of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The kidnapping and torture occurrences of Argentinean Dirty Wars were highly reminiscent of Colonel Mathieu’s methods of information extraction. Parallels were even drawn with the conduct of insurgents in the current Iraq War with FLN, the Algerian revolutionary group that fought the French. There was an official State Department screening of the film in 2004 to educate policymakers and intelligence officials about the urban warfare and stakes involved in it.

Based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, one of the military commanders of FLN or National Liberation Front, Battle of Algiers portrayed the resentment of the masses against the French colonialists that grew each day. The plot revolved around Ali La Pointe, an uneducated and unemployed youth, who became the symbol of revolution. His struggle inspired three women who stopped at nothing to emancipate Maghreb from the scourge of the west. Even the general public shared the mood of resistance, as women performed the traditional “ululation” after each tactical or moral victory against the invaders.

“Should France remain in Algeria? If your answer is ‘yes,’ then you must accept all the consequences.” This was the question Col. Mathieu asked the French people: Either we could glorify our colonial possessions or vindicate ourselves by ‘doing unto others (Algeria, et al) as we would have them (read Nazi Germany) do onto us.’ Sadly, the French chose the former and unleashed terror to tame dissent. Thus began the tit-for-tat; one force would launch attack on the other, which provoked revenge of greater intensity. But, the causalities of the deadly game were civilians: French and Algerian alike. State terror proved fatal and the French won the battle, but not the war. The seeds of discontentment were sowed, which eventually led to the expulsion of the French in 1962. Hail to FLN!

Alas, the euphoria didn’t last long. Three decades of FLN rule harbored corruption and obstructed democratic progress, which brewed antipathy towards the government. Casbah, the site of anti-colonialist forces now became the site of anti-establishment activities. However, this time the movement didn’t materialize in another form of Marxist-socialist revolutionary, but a religio-political entity called Islamic Salvation Front or FIS. Such was the popularity of the party that it won the 1992 general elections, but was denied to form a government by the military-FLN nexus. Thus, FIS resorted to guerrilla warfare; a period we now call the Algerian Civil War.

Gillo Pontecorvo visited Algeria in 1992 after three decades, and to his dismay the public vented anger on him for the European states indifference for Algerian military government’s suppression of political freedom and west’s mocking of the religion Islam. He had to clarify that he was a friend of Algeria and the director of one of the most important films about Algerian War of Independence; they say only an Italian could have made.

The Analysis of General Zia-ul-Haq in 1988

Posted in Military, Politics by Ali Athar on April 2, 2008

There isn’t much to discuss about the legacy of General Zia-ul-Haq’s brutal regime. The menace of sectarian violence, sacrilege of democracy, curtailing of political freedom, and embarking of Army into every spheres of life, are all attributed to eleven years of direct military rule. But such a scathing review didn’t come when the general died in a plane crash (or sabotage) on August 17, 1988.

Shahid Javed Burki, the former VP of World Bank and finance minister of Pakistan, had a softer opinion about Zia, when he wrote “Pakistan Under Zia 1977-1988” in the Asian Survey of October 1988. The Economist on August 20, 1988 also shared his constructive approach; “Zia the soldier has a decent place in the momentous recent history of the region.”

Burki’s analysis focuses on Zia’s economic achievement, his alliance with America to defend Pakistan from the scourge of communism, and his popularity amongst the “shurafaa” or the middle class, who were being sidelined by Bhutto’s socialism, and to whom Zia’s policies were directed. Burki doesn’t even criticize the regime’s Islamization policies and accredits them to Zia’s religious background and his true belief in Islamic reformation (these policies were later on debunked by General K.M. Arif, the deputy of Zia, as mere policy ploy by Zia to keep him in power). The author believes that if Zia started a political party, he would have surely won.

Being born in a poor Arain family that were historically farmers and not characterized as martial races by the British, Zia’s rise through the Sandhurst-educated Army echelons was characterized by the author as remarkable. His adherence to Islam throughout this ordeal and his avoidance of all worldly evils shows Zia’s aversion to not only the moral corruption but also the political corruption that plagued the nation from its birth. Thus, Zia worked or intended to work in the best interests of the country.

Burki contends that Zia’s political longetivity was not only the result of West’s support, as it is believed now, but due to his statesmanship and vision. Zia’s siding with the Americans in the heat of Cold War was his political genius and earned him respect from all over the world, with massive aid flowing in the country. Zia’s brilliant handling of the Army’s senior command did not lead to a single instance of coup within the Army, his main source of power. Unlike Ayub Khan, who made Yahya the military chief and was later overthrown by him, Zia made it a policy to keep the Army leadership in rotation, thus minimizing their chances of officers to create a following of their own. Even Bhutto’s hanging was a momentous decision; there was no political backlash, in fact none whatsoever during the eleven years of power, as long as middle class interests were protected.

It is ironic that the policies one leader sets into motion do not bear effect even during a decade-long government. Zia’s overt support of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to be the leader of Afghanistan after the communists was supplanted by Zia’s successors to support the Taliban, once Hetmatyar was out of the picture. The destruction it brought to Pakistan in terms of influx of millions of Afghan refugees and infiltration of drugs and weapons cannot be denied. The acceleration of Pakistani nuclear program by the Zia’s regime did bring us the bomb, but only at the cost of slapping Pakistan with economic and military sanctions, once the Afghan operation was over. These policies nearly declared our country to be a rogue state.