I vividly recall driving through the Islamabad-Rawalpindi Highway in the autumn of 1999, a few days after General Musharraf’s military coup of October 12th. It was a pleasant and serene evening and a steady calm prevailed in the atmosphere. As I drove on the main road, I saw a large billboard with a soldier’s picture glaring directly over the passing crowd. It was a towering hand-painted portrait of General Musharraf in his military uniform, riding an elegant white horse, a sword raised in his right hand and his head covered in an Arabic “ghutra” (the traditional white head-cover that Arabs wear). The caption beneath the portrait read: “Pakistan’s Salahuddin Ayyubi.”
As I studied this billboard, I smiled without quite understanding why. I had known at the time that people all over the country had distributed sweets on the streets celebrating the end of the chaotic so-called democratic regime of Mian Nawaz Sharif. Was the October ’99 martial law a manifestation of a political tragedy in the history of Pakistan? This is an issue and a subject that political historians will continue to debate over for years to come with many inconclusive judgments. It is how human history has been since humanity started recording events that greatly impacted the political discourse of societies all over the world. All we can do is learn from our past and make amendments in our present, and the future that is yet to come.
Coming back to the portrait of Pakistan’s Salahuddin Ayyubi, I am certain of one thing: the portrait was an expression of the artist’s deep-rooted love of legendary Islamic heroes; at the same time, it was a symbolic reflection of an imaginative, wishful hope that a soldier of God’s kingdom had appeared to serve the people of Pakistan. It reflected a deeply ingrained national psychological sentiment of public love, faith and emotional commitment to the trust and emotional commitment of the common Pakistani towards Pakistan’s Armed Forces. And it was an expression of people’s faith in Pakistan’s military establishment as a national institution that will never betray this nation and always protect it from the evil eye within and from outside. It indicated the awaam’s firm faith in the Armed Forces as the guardians and protectors of their national identity, safety and stability.
One might disagree with me on the aforementioned contention, but this public perception and sentiment towards its Armed Forces still exists in totality in the public consciousness. This sentiment is still reflected and remains absolutely intact as of today. Whether Musharraf and other military rulers came up to people’s expectations is a justifiably controversial debate that will rage on for an eternity with opposing arguments on both ends of the political spectrum. Irrespective of this debate, the question now is: what now? Where does the military leadership stand on September 2014 Pakistan? What should it do and what should it not?
This is what the military establishment must do now and do urgently before matters get out of control: It must support public aspirations by making a “soft intervention,” telling the PMLN government to “give people what they want or they will give it to them on their behalf.” It is my considered opinion that a vast majority of common Pakistani folk as well as the PTI and PAT, (the two political parties battling the status quo forces to relinquish political-economic control over the country), will welcome the military establishment’s “soft intervention” to end the prevailing impasse.
What the military leadership must not do is impose martial law. Working within the parameters of the constitution and the Supreme Court’s guidance, the military establishment should endorse a national interim administration of non-political, non-party-affiliated actors to implement structural reforms in the entire political system strictly in accordance with constitutional requirements, inclusive of criteria for the election of public representatives, the setting up of an independent Election Commission of Pakistan, the rigid adherence to the “preamble” of the Constitution, and so on and so forth.
Let me stress the vital importance of prevailing ground realities of present-day Pakistan, standing in direct confrontation between two opposing ideas on Constitution Avenue in Islamabad. The fact of the matter is that the self-denial of political impropriety and inexpedience is of no use now. The debate and the attempts to save today’s so-called democracy is irrelevant at this stage. This so-called democracy bears nothing in common to what democracy truly means. This democracy is a charade, a comedy of errors, a mismanaged theatrical performance, and an idea whose time has passed. Let us embrace “truth” as the first step towards our salvation as a nation. Let’s just try to be honest, ethical, moral, and truly committed to uprightness and veracity. The adjudication of history is upon us. Let us arbitrate our future with fairness and esteemed judgment. Let us find out with objectivity, honesty and absoluteness if the May 2013 elections were rigged or not.
We all know for a fact, given the nature of human beings and the multiple manifestations of being in political power, that its invisible might and its effective tangible potency makes it absolutely impossible to have a free and fair judgment on the May 2013 elections as long as Mian Nawaz Sharif and the PMLN government remains in charge of national affairs. This is not an ethical or moral judgment on Mian Sharif as an individual, but simply an in-depth understanding of power dynamics and how power works in reality.
Let us try to convince the Prime Minister to stand aside – and if the May 2013 elections are proven authentic and the PMLN public mandate established, the honorable Prime Minister comes back with full glory. How else could heaven honor a mortal human save giving a person political immortality for all times to come. What else could Mian Nawaz Sharif ask for in one lifetime on this earth?
On the other hand, I dare not think of driving through the Islamabad-Rawalpindi Highway sometime soon on an autumn evening this year and see a huge hand-painted billboard with another General’s portrait riding a magnificent white horse, a naked sword raised in his right hand, a traditional Arabic “ghutra” wrapped on his head, glaring directly at me, and the bold caption beneath him reading, “Pakistan’s Mohammad Bin Qasim.”
I affirm my love of this nation’s simple people, their love for their soldiers, their aspirations, their hopes – and most of the time, I wonder how long their sufferings will continue.
It is time that we, as a nation, stand with the righteous, whoever you think they are – don’t you agree?
The writer is UAE-based academic, policy analyst, conflict resolution expert and author of several books on Pakistan and foreign policy issues. He holds a doctorate and a masters degree from Columbia University in New York.