How I learned to love coups

While military is solely responsible for coups it commits, pre-empting future ones lie on its enablers: politicians.

Asad Rahim Khan July 08, 2013
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and studied law at Lincoln’s Inn and the London School of Economics. He tweets @AsadRahim

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.

We were better served by listening instead, listening to the thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who hit the streets moments later. Listening to condemnations from Turkey’s AK 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 ham-fisted “Islamists” like Mohamed Mursi. ‘Egypt’s democrats aren’t liberal, its 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 per cent electorate that polled in favour of Mursi. 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 TV, 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 with thieves operating in the middle of the night.

The further away from Europe we move, the more Fallaci’s theory grows legs. Africa’s succession of maniacs in uniform, from its Idi Amins to its Jean-Bedel Bokassas. 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.

And while the military 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 Iskander 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 Mujibur 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 democratically a long time ago. The military’s vaunting 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 Erdogan 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 AK’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 Thirteenth Amendment, the Eighteenth Amendment, and now, the “trial” of Pervez Musharraf. It will take harder efforts 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.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2013.

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Omar | 9 years ago | Reply

Finally something readable from beginning to end. Loved it. @Stratos: "Overall rigorous delve into empty rhetoric?" Do you see the irony of your comment?

Stratos | 9 years ago | Reply

A slow and self-important read. The author is young and it shows. The few relevant points made are hard to sift through in this mess of out of context quotations and overall rigorous delve into empty rhetoric. Mr. Khan has talent and should try utilizing all of it.

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