Pakistan: zero-sum games people play

Irfan Husain
6 December 2006

Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf has signed the Women's Protection Act (WPA) into law, and on 5 December 2006 announced to a women's conference his intention to extend and deepen the principles it embodies:

"It is our effort that more should be done for women apart from this bill. We want to empower you. Your destiny, your future should be in your hand. This is what I want to give you. This is the greatest gift I want to give you, so that you don't have to beg for favours from men."

Yet this contentious piece of legislation continues to roil Pakistan's political waters. To register their protest against the WPA, the Islamic parties united under the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance have been threatening to resign from the national assembly in Islamabad on 6 December unless the bill is withdrawn.

Indeed, throughout its tortuous and bitterly opposed passage through the assembly and the senate, the bill has underlined the polarisation of Pakistani society. The MMA alliance - formed shortly before the 2002 elections, and which now holds sixty-six seats in the assembly - has bitterly fought the bill's progress every step of the way, on the grounds that the act is contrary to sharia law. In the other corner of the argument is Pakistan's civil society (led in this instance by Pervez Musharraf) that seeks a modern, progressive state.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

Also by Irfan Husain in openDemocracy:

"Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words"
(16 March 2006)

"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

"The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)

"Hell in Helmand"
(18 July 2006)

"Lebanon: the view from Pakistan"
(7 August 2006)

"The Baluchi insurrection"
(4 September 2006)

"How democracy works in Pakistan"
(29 September 2006)

"Pervez Musharraf: in a vice" (6 November 2006)

Pakistan's great divide

At the heart of this deeply divisive debate is the hudood ordinance, imposed by another military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, in 1979. This law was inflicted on Pakistan through military fiat, and purported to reflect Islamic punishments for infringements of Qur'anic injunctions relating to adultery, drinking, gambling, and other "moral" matters. The most controversial aspect of this ordinance related to sex outside marriage (or zina), the punishment for which was stoning to death.

Although never carried out in Pakistan, mullahs in the tribal areas have been known to inflict this barbaric penalty from time to time. But more absurd than the punishment is the position in which raped women found themselves: unless they could find four adult male Muslim witnesses to the crime, the assumption under law was that the victim had committed zina, and she would be tried and sentenced to jail. Over the years, thousands of women have been falsely accused and incarcerated, while rapists got off scot-free. The Women's Protection Act has finally categorised rape as a crime for which normal rules of evidence apply.

The hudood ordinance, assailed by human-rights organisations in and out of Pakistan, has been the line dividing the fundamentalists from the moderates. When he took over in 1999, Musharraf promised to make Pakistan a country where "enlightened moderation" would prevail. But his first few years did little to reflect his personal liberalism. His problem was that by relentlessly pursuing and demonising Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the exiled centrist leaders (of the Pakistan's Peoples' Party [PPP] and one wing of the Pakistan Muslim League [PML] respectively), he became dependent on the MMA for support in and out of parliament.

This coalition of Islamic parties was born before the 2002 elections, allegedly at the prompting of the ISI, the military intelligence agency that has played a major behind-the-scenes role in every recent Pakistani election. Taking advantage of the vacuum created by the hounding of Benazir Bhutto's PPP and Nawaz Sharif's side of the PML, the MMA gained a majority in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP's) assembly, and formed the government in this province bordering Afghanistan. In Baluchistan, the other province sharing a long border with Afghanistan, it is the senior coalition partner.

Considering that in the previous assemblies, the religious parties had never been able to muster over ten seats, this was a remarkable turnaround. One factor behind their stunning success was the fact that in a country where many voters are illiterate, and where parties are therefore assigned symbols, the MMA received the illustration of a book as its electoral emblem. Claiming that this book was the Qur'an, the MMA candidates appealed to the strong religious beliefs of voters, and thus made huge gains. Observers allege that the bureaucracy and the ISI also played a role in this big swing.

After the 2002 elections, the provincial and federal assemblies combined to form an electoral college to elect the president. Given the strong opposition he faced from democratic parties, Musharraf turned to the MMA for support. Traditionally, there has been a symbiotic relationship between the mullahs and the military: the army reaches out to the clerics for legitimacy, and religious parties, knowing they cannot come to power on their own, use dictators to further their agenda.

So it came as no surprise when the MMA agreed to vote for Musharraf with the proviso that once elected, he would discard his general's uniform, and serve out his term as a civilian president. But Musharraf, knowing that ultimately his power flowed from being the army chief, backed out of this agreement once he was elected president. This placed the mullahs in an embarrassing position, and they have been opposing Musharraf ever since. He has given them plenty of ammunition by taking on the jihadis and the Taliban in the tribal areas of the NWFP and Baluchistan.

Against this background, when the issue of the WPA was raised in early 2006, the MMA opposed it tooth and nail on the grounds that it was somehow "un-Islamic". But after the official Council of Islamic Ideology had cleared it, the MMA's stance was severely eroded. At one point, it seemed that Musharraf was getting cold feet when the faction of the Muslim League that supports him voiced its reservations.

The bill was withdrawn for further debate and study, and many liberals thought that just as he had on other issues in the past, Musharraf was buckling under to the mullahs. But even though the version presented to parliament on 16 November was watered-down, it still represented a victory for moderation.

The next alliance?

A significant factor is that the PPP played a crucial role in the bill's passage. Nawaz Sharif's dwindling band of MPs did not vote, and the MMA boycotted the proceedings, so in effect, the bill was passed without opposition. Many in Pakistan see the PPP's support for Musharraf's initiative as the first step to its rehabilitation. Clearly, Benazir Bhutto's party could not have voted against the bill, given its liberal character. But it could have taken the path of expediency and abstained. Now, the PPP is being blamed for breaking ranks with the combined opposition which has sworn to make life difficult for Musharraf.

In principle, this makes a deal possible: in return for being allowed to return to Pakistan before the 2007 elections, Benazir Bhutto would undertake to support Musharraf in his second presidential bid. Tellingly, anti-PPP politicians are reaching out to the exiled leader and joining her party. At the same time, Musharraf referred in a television interview on 5 December to outstanding legal cases against Bhutto, and ruled out her (and Sharif's) participation in the 2007 elections.

In any case, PPP activists are revolted by the possibility of a deal with Musharraf - though after a decade out of power, such an arrangement (if it were within her grasp) must seem attractive to Benazir Bhutto. She has, after all, always been a pragmatist. Meanwhile, the ruling faction of the Muslim League fears that it would become redundant if the PPP supports Musharraf. Above all, the MMA will do everything in its power to oppose a partnership between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto as it threatens to rollback many of the gains they have made over the years. But as far as Pakistani liberals are concerned, it is a zero-sum game between the fundamentalists and the state: any loss for the mullahs is a gain for Pakistan.

The MMA's 6 December deadline for resignation from the national assembly arrives with the politics of the Women's Protection Act hanging in the balance. The alliance is composed of nine groups, but its key leaders are Qazi Hussain Ahmed (of the Jamaat-e-Islami) and Maulana Fazl ur-Rahman of the Jamiat-ul-Islam.

The former is much more hardline than his colleague, and is pushing the MMA towards quitting the assembly, while the latter realises that by sitting outside the assembly, the clerics will be marginalised. This split within the ranks reinforces the doubts about whether the MMA will carry through its threat to resign; in Pakistan, not even Islamists are immune from political calculations.

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