Final Days of Democracy?

The following report on the intricacies of the memogate controversy¬†appeared in Daily Times¬†and provides a fresh look at the facts while raising some important questions that remain unanswered. With breaking news that DG ISI secretly met with Mansoor Ijaz in London, many are starting to worry that¬†we’ve seen this drama before

Memogate, the new scandal to hit the fragile PPP government, is currently being viewed as just another crisis. However, it may turn out to be a turning point in Pakistan’s domestic politics. First, even before the full facts have been brought to public light there are calls within sections of media to try Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US and by implication his boss, President Zardari, for ‘treason’. This is nothing new in the contested civil-military divide of Pakistan. The political class has been continuously termed as ‘security risk’, ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘traitors’. The wine is old, the bottles however are new and involve technological innovations such as the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service.

While a big media group has taken the lead to play the national security game and released the contents of BBMs exchanged between a dubious US businessman Mansoor Ijaz and Ambassador Husain Haqqani, they have been silent on a few questions. For instance, the memo, released earlier this week by Foreign Policy magazine and The Washington Post, is unsigned and unattributed to any author. It bears no official seal and was not delivered by any government representative. In his statement to the press, Admiral Mullen’s spokesman John Kirby noted that the American military chief, who receives many pieces of correspondence, “did not find it at all credible and took no note of it then or later” – an unusual reaction if he had any reason to believe the memo came from the highest levels of Pakistan’s government.

In Pakistan, where Mansoor Ijaz is a relatively unknown figure, Mr Ijaz’s credibility is being debated. In the US, where in the past he claimed that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and was a vocal supporter of the Iraq invasion, Ijaz’s cloak-and-dagger stories are given little credence outside neoconservative circles. New revelations highlight that Ijaz held secret meetings with the ISI in Europe to discuss his ‘evidence’ against Ambassador Haqqani have added to suspicions in Pakistan, too, that the ‘coup-master’ is laying a trap for President Zardari ahead of elections.

Another puzzling question about Ijaz’s allegations is why he decided, after almost five months, to reveal what he claims was a top secret mission in a very public opinion column. Mansoor Ijaz claims that he was driven by a desire to defend Admiral Mike Mullen who has been pilloried in the Pakistani media after terming the Haqqani Taliban networks “a veritable arm of the ISI”. But his explanation simply does not make sense.

Admiral Mullen may have been heavily criticised after his sensational allegations, but would that really matter to him? Would he even know? Are we to believe that Mullen is a subscriber of rightwing Pakistani narrative, or that he is tuning in each night to hear the critiques of our celebrity defence analysts? Even if he did, are we to believe that the man who retired from being the leader of the most powerful military in the world is so fragile that the chatter in Pakistan’s mainstream media was enough to bruise him?

And if Mansoor Ijaz really was motivated by a desire to defend Admiral Mullen from unfair attacks in the Pakistani media, why did he choose to submit his piece to an elite British financial paper? The opinion page of the Financial Times is certainly a way to deliver a message, but not to anyone who was critical of the American military chief.

The saga continues, as Ambassador Haqqani is due to arrive in Pakistan; and will present his point of view. The opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has probably sensed the gravity of the issue and has clarified that there is no party decision to resign from the assemblies en masse. Sharif has also called for an independent commission to verify the facts of the case; and this is the correct way to move forward. Surely, toppling the government at this juncture will hurt the entire political class.

Several closed door meetings between the military leadership and the president and prime minister have already taken place. Analysts such as Tarek Fatah have warned of another ‘palace coup’ in the making. Most importantly, Imran Khan in his October 30 rally in Lahore had raised the issue of Ambassador Haqqani’s citizenship and also the op-ed written by Ijaz. The million dollar question is whether he was ‘briefed’ on the events to come. Sections of the media are hell-bent to build Khan’s stature as a national politician though he has yet to demonstrate his popularity at the ballot box. The media-fuelled growing tide of anti-Americanism helps the situation. NATO pullout from Afghanistan may necessitate installing of a pro-Taliban puppet regime in Pakistan. However, it remains to be seen how the politicians, especially President Zardari, handle this major challenge to their legitimacy.

Our sources inform that the security agencies are briefing journalists of all variety across the country to apprise them of the situation and how they have certain conversations that implicate Zardari. According to these sources, President Zardari may just ditch Ambassador Haqqani. But this development will not be the final act of this play. The next in line will be Mr Zardari himself. And that raises huge concerns for the future of democracy. Any extra-constitutional step will only harm Pakistan’s interests; but the future scenario appears to be grim. As one analyst in Islamabad put it, “We may be heading towards another bout of quasi-military rule.”

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