Between the Idea and the Reality falls the Shadow

By Samia Altaf

In two recent articles, I was pleading for a deeper understanding of Pakistan, an understanding based on the emerging realities in the country, an understanding that would give us half a chance of avoiding the kind of immense tragedy we are confronted with today.

Helping Pakistan began with the following paragraph: “Pakistan, labeled the most dangerous country in the world, with loose nukes and angry jihadis, is unraveling. It needs help. To be helped it needs to be understood. Urging a transition to “true democracy,” after the fourth military dictator has suspended the constitution for the second time and sacked a judiciary that dared to question his legitimacy, betrays either naiveté or disinterest. Both will hurt in the long run, if there is a long run.” And Cricket in the Jungle started with the following lines: “While everyone is focused on what will happen, the much more profound impact will be of what is happening before it happens.”

Both articles attempted to highlight the huge disconnect between the malady and the cure, between the reality that exists on the ground and the perceptions that inform the analyses and prescriptions. How could one not see the magnitude of the gap? How could one be so naïve as to not see the implications of the recommendations?

What could be going through the minds of those who urged “free and fair” elections, so quintessentially a rule-bound process, in an environment literally bereft of all rules, an environment where the few rules that did exist could be changed at a moment’s notice at the behest of someone not accountable to anyone? I tried to visualize the absurdity of the situation by characterizing it as an attempt to play a game of cricket (a gentlemen’s game) in a jungle and asked “Would you accept at the national level what you won’t in a game of cricket?”

This is an environment in which even the most credible political contenders are looking for legitimacy not down to the people with the vote but up to the gendarmes with the guns. This is the reality reflected in the reported words of the brave lawyer leading the struggle for the rule of law: “If the new parliament fails to restore the judiciary to its pre-November 3 status… the lawyers would launch a massive movement and would force the Chief of the Army Staff to undo all the wrongdoings of his predecessor.” Note the Freudian slip, the obviously inadvertent acknowledgement of the reality – the undoing would still need to be authorized by the Chief of the Army Staff.

Add to all that the nature of the rules of engagement in society. In a democratic environment differences are supposed to be resolved through discussion, through presenting to the electorate alternative agendas to consider and to accept or reject. But we are dealing with an environment where opponents can be arbitrarily imprisoned, exiled or eliminated. I mentioned the monarchical ethos of a society which can live with the violent elimination of contenders for power till only the most brutal one is left standing. Now with the influx of the jihadis willing to blow themselves up along with others, the situation has spiraled down another notch. If only the advisers from afar had ever experienced a face-to-face argument with a jihadi. 

Those who do not see the chasm between the idea and the reality will fall victim to the shadows. The jungle will claim its victims and the innocent and the naïve will perish together. This will set back the struggle even further. Once again, I can only repeat my plea to focus exclusively on pushing back the jungle, on restoring the rule of law, on strengthening the institutions that could ensure a level playing field on which free and fair elections could be envisaged. If the opposition does not unite on this one crucial point, it is going to be picked apart one at a time. The jungle will close over all of us.  

Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

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