How I learned to love coups

Published in The Express Tribune

Pakistanis have an affinity for Arab lands, and they discuss them plenty: from demigod Saudi Arabia to tiny Bahrain, from fast-rising Qatar to the long-risen UAE (Dubai to be exact). But it would take something momentous for Egypt to come up in conversation, like the people’s revolution that ousted sour old Hosni Mubarak in 2011. That held our imaginations for a day or two, but it was only when Egypt’s generals staged a coup last week that we started talking. Unlike all-inclusive people’s revolutions, this was something we knew about.

We were better served by listening instead, listening to the thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters that hit the streets moments later. Listening to condemnations from Turkey’s A.K. Party, its leaders having treaded the long road to civilian supremacy. Listening to the coup’s endorsement by that grinning reptile Tony Blair, who had declared Mubarak ‘immensely courageous’ and ‘a force for good’ mid-revolution, by which time it was apparent he was neither. And listening, but straining to hear from the Land of the Free. Barack Obama, ex-constitutional law professor, has yet to say the word ‘coup’.

Egypt’s liberals may agree with such an oversight. But democracy means respecting the people’s mandate, even when handed to hamfisted ‘Islamists’ like Mohamed Morsi. ‘Egypt’s democrats aren’t liberal, it’s liberals aren’t democrats,’ is a phrase echoing across the press, and it rings true. The Brotherhood was hardly convenient for the generals, with its clumsy constitution and fits of teen angst against Israel. But it is here to stay. This coup damages less the Brotherhood, a crew that survived Nasser, and more the 51% electorate that polled in favour of Morsi. When they leave their houses the next time, and they did this past week, it won’t be to cast ballots.

Which begs the question: are these coups ever worth it? The package deal – the generalissimo on T.V., the soldiers in the street, the public service message that the day has been saved? Less space for liberty, less space for ideas even, is measured against better safety and more stability. For journalist Oriana Fallaci, whose companion was tortured to near-death by the colonels in Greece, the answer was a brittle no. Barely concealing her rage, she compared soldiers committing coups to thieves operating in the middle of the night.

The further away from Europe we move, the more Fallaci’s theory (unlike her others) grows legs. Africa’s succession of maniacs in uniform, from its Idi Amins to its Jean-Bedel Bokassas, continue to haunt children’s nightmares. Generals in sunglasses have also devoured South America: Chile’s Augusto Pinochet was a tyrant out of a Marquez novel, while Argentina’s hideous Videla oversaw the rape of imprisoned women and abducted the babies they bore. Up in Asia, the Burmese junta has been at large since 1962, while in North Africa, Colonel Qaddafi’s marathon reign ended as bizarrely as it began, with Libya in ruins.

But the jury is still out in Pakistan. Why does the validity of such coups, some ask, remain up for debate? For one, we are told, the masses heave a ‘sigh of relief’ whenever those corrupt civilians are hauled away. But the same masses elect fresh ones in with as much enthusiasm. Better economic management, and for most patches, security, is a more convincing reason. Pakistan has also yet to suffer the evils of a whole-hog despot, a Trujillos rather than an Ayub.

And while the army is solely responsible for the coups it commits, the burden of pre-empting future ones lies on its finest enablers: the political class. It was President Mirza, content with declaring our first martial law, who then anointed Ayub Khan its high priest. And it was our next civilian premier who advised Ayub that, ‘to be head and shoulders above the others, it would be better if he elevated his own rank from general to that of field marshal.’ Zulfikar Ali Bhutto went on to joke, ‘I am therefore the hero of Ayub Khan’s valorous battles.’

Aware of how history treated such marshals, Mr. Bhutto wrote, ‘The dictator is the one animal who needs to be caged. He rules by fluke and freak. He is the scourge and the ogre. He is a leper. Not a single one of them has made a moment’s contribution to history.’ History might deem Mr. Bhutto right, but in so doing, assign him to the same category he condemns – in ignoring Mujib-ur-Rehman’s mandate, in imposing emergency, in mowing down tribesmen via gunship in Balochistan, and in letting loose FSF thugs on party men. Thus Mr. Bhutto, the Fabian genius from Berkeley, found himself at the wrong end of a coup managed by Faiz Ali Chishti, a moustache with medals and little else.

As civility between Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari shows, our democrats would have been better served behaving democratic a long time ago. The army will never self-correct, it hasn’t anyplace else. Its vaulting over Pak Radio can only be stopped when our civilians begin believing in the supremacy they are meant to uphold, rather than take campaign donations from Aslam Beg.

And supremacy can only flow from superior governance, as Turkey has proven (until late). Prime Minister Erdoğan came down hard on Turkey’s sticky generals, but he coupled it with economic progress, political reform, and an overarching belief in civilian rule that finally wrested control back into A.K.P.’s hands. Such supremacy stems from strengthening institutions and due process. It doesn’t from one-off stunts: from speeding off Gul Hassan in a getaway car to not letting Pervez Musharraf down from his airplane. And though 2013’s democratic transition was said to sound the death knell for future coups, we heard the same death knell during the passing of the constitution, the 13th Amendment, the 18th Amendment, and now, the ‘trial’ of Pervez Musharraf. It will take harder than that.

Bertrand Russell once asked ‘at what stage of starvation would you prefer the grain to the vote?’ It is in the interests of Pakistan’s elected leaders to ensure such a choice ceases being a mutually exclusive one.