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What is there in common between Gen. Musharraf and Gen. Al Sisi?

January 27, 2014 at 12:33 pm

In the aftermath of the military coup in Egypt on July 3, 2013, comparisons to other countries came thick and fast. For the optimists, there was Turkey, where the army had ousted governments who had become unpopular, and held new elections to allow a seedling of democracy to take root. After coups in 1980, 1993, and 1997, Turkey is now held up as an example of functioning democracy in the region. For the pessimists, there was Algeria, where a brutal civil war ensured after an election was delayed in 1991. A more ambiguous comparison was Pakistan, a country which has spent half its short life under military dictatorships, but which finally seems to be on the road to democracy.

The immediate comparisons between Pakistan and Egypt are obvious. Both are large, populous countries with a Muslim majority. Both have powerful armies, which on the one hand are criticised for advancing their own economic and political interests, but on the other are viewed with respect by much of the population. Both have a colonial legacy, meaning that current political systems were set up to accommodate a dominant foreign elite. Upon independence, this inherently un-egalitarian structure arguably rendered the transition to democracy more difficult. In both nations, social conservatism is dominant, with greater support for political Islam than for secular western values in terms of numbers. Yet both are reliant on American aid, and are also home to a strong segment of liberal opinion. Perhaps even more strikingly, much like Egypt’s recent coup, all of the military takeovers in Pakistan have initially met with popular support.

Of course, caution must be taken when comparing any two countries. Turkey does not share Egypt’s colonial history; Algeria had an existing tradition of insurgency after its war of independence with France; Pakistan has endured not one, but five military coups.

But while a comparison can never be absolute, some lessons can be drawn from the exercise. Pakistan’s most recent coup took place on 12 October 1999, when General Pervez Musharraf, the head of the army, overthrew the democratically elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. In a drastic turning of the tables 15 years later, Sharif is currently serving a third term as premier, having been voted back into office this year, while Musharraf is under house arrest in Islamabad, awaiting trial for treason (among other charges).

There were some immediate similarities to the recent overthrow in Egypt. Both Sharif and Mohammed Morsi, the ousted president of Egypt, head up socially conservative, right-wing, religious parties. In Sharif’s case, this was the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and in Morsi’s, the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite being democratically elected, both men had been criticised for not behaving democratically while in power. In Egypt in 2013, Morsi was accused of failing to engage other parties while he pushed through his own movement’s Islamist agenda – most notably, on the rushed rewrite of the Constitution. He was also accused of unfairly promoting his Muslim Brotherhood cronies to senior positions. In Pakistan in 1999, people complained that Sharif was failing to consult parliament, while his main advisers were his father and brother. Both men were systematically working to undermine the power of the judiciary. When Sharif was ousted by the army, there were street celebrations from secularists, social activists, and opposing political parties. The news of Morsi’s fall was similarly greeted with jubilation.

Of course, there are several key differences too. For a start, the small public celebrations seen after the ousting of Sharif were by no means on the same scale as in Egypt. The days leading up to the deposition of Morsi saw mass protests on the streets, from liberal secularists who felt that the revolution of 2011 – in which dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled – had been hijacked by Islamists and conservatives. The army exploited this genuine wave of discontent to stage their takeover, explicitly positioning themselves as the guardians of the people’s wishes. While most military coups in Pakistan were met with popular support, it was never quite on this scale. The size of the protests in Egypt was such that military involvement to restore the peace was to be expected; if not military involvement to remove the government. Accordingly, on taking command, General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian army, handled things somewhat differently to Musharraf.

The 1999 coup in Pakistan was a clear power-grab. Sharif had tried to sack Musharraf, because tensions between the two men were high. Each blamed the other for the military and political disasters of the Kargil War. Musharraf, who was in Sri Lanka when he heard that he was being removed, immediately boarded a commercial plane back to Pakistan. Sharif ordered the plane to be diverted, and then tried to stop it from landing. The Pakistan army seized the control tower and allowed the plane to land. Troops took control of the state-run Pakistan Television Corporation in Islamabad, encircled the Prime Minister House, took control of international airports, and cut international phone lines. When television service was restored, a short message announcing that Sharif had been removed was displayed on the screen, and several hours later, a pre-recorded television address by Musharraf was aired. Here was the army physically taking over state institutions, using force to seize control of the state. The coup was bloodless, but this was a military operation.

In Egypt in 2013, there had been several days of mass protests to mark Morsi’s one year anniversary in office. The situation had escalated and turned violent in certain areas. On 1 July, the second day of protests, the army issued a 48 hour ultimatum to Morsi and his party: meet the people’s demands, or face military intervention. Morsi hit back that he would “defend the legitimacy of my elected office with my life”. The 3 July deadline arrived. Tanks drove through the streets of Cairo, Morsi was placed under house arrest, and senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood were detained. In a televised address, Al-Sisi announced that he had removed Morsi from power, suspended the Constitution, and would be calling new presidential and Shura Council elections. The military appointed the Chief Justice, Adly Mansour, as the interim president, and gave him responsibility for forming a transitional government of technocrats.

Perhaps the key difference in the mechanics of the two coups was in how each general chose to frame it. In his televised address, Al-Sisi was flanked by religious and political leaders of all stripes. Among them were the top liberal candidate, Mohamed El-Baradei (who later resigned from the interim government over violent crackdowns on opposition supporters), the head of the Coptic Church, and the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar. Each of these figures spoke in turn to back the coup. Unlike Musharraf’s power-grab, Al-Sisi attempted to paint his as a preservation of democracy, rather than a subversion of it.

This difference in approach is most obviously demonstrated by the fact that Musharraf very directly took control in 1999, naming himself Chief Executive. By contrast Al-Sisi – so far, at least – has preferred to step back from the limelight, appointing a transitional government headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court. Al-Sisi himself took the position of defence minister – although there is little doubt as to where power really lies.

After Musharraf’s takeover, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared that the coup was legal, but that army rule must be limited to three years. In 2002, when this deadline arrived, Musharraf held a national referendum on whether his rule should be continued. Unsurprisingly, in a poll widely criticised as fraudulent, he won 98 per cent of the vote. He subsequently became President, and stayed in office until he was forced to resign in 2007.

In the days immediately after the coup, the Egyptian military put forward a roadmap for national reconciliation, with endorsement from a broad base of different actors. That may have been undermined by the violent suppression of Muslim Brotherhood supporters that followed, but it still demonstrates that the Egyptian army made active attempts to appear to be safeguarding the democratic process with the support of other groups. Whether the army makes good on its promise to hold new free and fair elections remains to be seen.

Upon seizing power, Musharraf paid the most cursory lip service to democracy. In his televised address to the nation he said: “Quite clearly, what Pakistan has experienced in the recent years has been merely a label of democracy, not the essence of it. Our people were never emancipated from the yoke of despotism. I shall not allow the people to be taken back to the era of sham democracy.” But unlike Al-Sisi, he did not talk of elections or roadmaps. Any hopes for a swift democratic transition were put to bed when he declared a state of emergency, suspended the federal and provincial governments, and appointed himself Chief Executive.

This is partly down to the different political contexts of Egypt in 2013 and Pakistan in 1999. While both countries were facing economic turmoil and International Monetary Fund bail-outs, there were substantial differences too. Egypt remains in the throes of a democratic awakening, and in 2011, the military dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted by a popular revolution after three decades in power. Against this recent background, the military had to exploit the wave of secular discontent in order to oust Morsi: it could not look like the old guard stepping back in (although, subsequently, several members of Mubarak’s cabinet were appointed to the interim government). If the army had appeared to be acting unilaterally, mass protests would have continued and escalated. Instead, Al-Sisi positioned himself and the army as the “guardians of the people’s will”.

By contrast, 1999 was the fifth military coup in Pakistan. While democracy has always been held up in the country as an ideal, in practice, people have often found civilian leaders to be corrupt and ineffective. The immense dominance of the military means even when they are not directly running the country, civilian leaders have limited powers. The narrative of the army stepping in to clear up the mess left by corrupt politicians was already well established in Pakistan before the 1999 coup.

Musharraf’s coup was bloodless. When the army initially seized power in Egypt in 2013, it was similarly described as bloodless – but that soon changed, with violent clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the armed forces costing scores of lives in the days and weeks after the takeover. El Baradei, the liberal politician who was initially supportive of the ouster, resigned over the violent suppression of the opposition. This harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood was all the more surprising because many of the movement’s supporters had seen Al-Sisi as one of their own. Known to be a religious person, prior to the coup, he had in fact been suspected of being a secret member of the group. However, like other military men, he was also an ardent supporter of Egypt’s nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and it is quite possible that he shares the common military distrust of the Brotherhood as an organisation.

Born in 1954, Al-Sisi came from a modest background, growing up in the Gamaleya district of Cairo. The army was a natural choice for an ambitious young man without much education or money, and he quickly moved up the ranks, although he does not have any combat experience. Mike Giglio, Newsweek’s Middle East correspondent, noted that it is “incredibly difficult to dig up even the smallest personal details” about Al-Sisi, concluding that the General is “very, very conscious about image control”. Despite the brutal crackdowns against protesters in the early days of the takeover, Al-Sisi has generally remained popular. Giglio went so far as to claim that “if Al-Sisi did run in the upcoming elections he would win by a landslide – even his enemies admit that.”

At the time when he seized power, Musharraf was also popular, and he became one of Pakistan’s longest-serving rulers, surviving numerous assassination attempts and plots. The Delhi-born son of an Urdu-speaking family that migrated to Pakistan after the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, after seizing power, he quickly appointed a cabinet of technocrats – much like Al-Sisi’s interim government. He arrested Sharif and charged him with hijacking, kidnapping, attempted murder, and treason, for attempting to stop Musharraf’s flight from landing. Sharif would have faced the death penalty, but under pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia, was allowed to go into exile. As Morsi languishes in an undisclosed location in Egypt, many are similarly questioning whether he will receive a fair trial. The specifics of how Musharraf’s time in power played out – with the war on terror, liberalisation of the media, and an ongoing tussle with the judiciary – are not relevant to the current aftermath of Egypt’s coup. But looking at the current situation in Pakistan could be. In 2006, Sharif signed a Charter of Democracy with his rivals, the Pakistan People’s Party. It was a striking contrast to the embittered relations between the two parties that had characterised the past, but demonstrated a drive from both parties to build the strength of democracy and not criticise each other to the extent that the nation became vulnerable to military intervention. During the last parliament, President Asif Ali Zardari, who was wildly unpopular, made constitutional changes that devolved power to the provinces and reduced the power of the president. During his time in opposition, Sharif, who has now been returned to power, did not seek to undermine the government too vociferously. In a piece looking at possible lessons for Egypt from Pakistan, Reuters journalist Myra McDonald notes: “the politicians learned: if they were to claw power away from the army, they had to set the rules of the game among themselves”.

As a result of this – and also because of the increased power of the media, which increased exponentially after being freed up by Musharraf – the country recently saw its first democratic transition from one elected government to another in its whole 65 year history. Egypt is at the beginning of its democratic experiment, and it is inevitable the path will not be smooth. Under Mubarak, political opposition was suppressed to such an extent that the infrastructure for a functioning, pluralistic democracy simply does not exist. In the latest round of mass protests, the secularist and liberals who objected to Morsi’s policies and style of leadership arguably made the mistake of thinking that their enemy’s enemy was their friend, and embracing army intervention. Going forward, it seems that the best tactic would be for civilians to work on building up their political systems rather than bowing to – or even calling for – army intervention. Pakistan’s democracy is still fragile and at a fledgling stage of its development, but if there are any lessons to be learned, that is it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.