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Into the Frying Pan

For a few heady hours following Hosni Mobarak’s exit from power after 30 years of dictatorial rule during which he (and his family) managed to “save” US $ 40 billion from the salaries paid to him as a public servant of an impoverished nation, the successful revolt in the streets sent hopes soaring about impending freedom and a functioning democracy that would sustain the citizen’s aspirations.  Rid of another “indispensable” Pharaoh, Egyptians must be forgiven for believing in this ridiculous farce, at least for sometime.

Who wields power in Egypt today?   Appointed Vice President only a few days ago, Gen Omar Suleman, Mobarak’s Intelligence and Security Chief for 18 years, was notorious for torturing political prisoners himself.  Barring a handful of skeptics, western leaders gushed “ad nauseam” for days over Mobarak’s dreaded enforcer as the designated successor.  In the evolving circumstances Omar Suleman became a distinct liability like his boss.  Remaining ahead of the game before their own troops started to refuse their orders, the “Higher Military Council” led by Defence Minister and Armed Forces Chief, 77-year old Field Marshal Tantawi, converted their quiet attempt to push out Mobarak gracefully into a sudden firm shove in the middle of the night.

The Pyramids providing the backdrop to Cairo are a solid testimony to thousands of years of Egyptian bondage, millions of slaves laboured and died to build them.   What the protestors have achieved in Egypt through peaceful means is indeed remarkable but as one CNN commentator put it, “in the aftermath of euphoria, the question is the same as before Mobarak’s exit, what next?”

The people of Egypt want freedom, manifest in every sense of the word, one without shackles and repression thereof.    Obviously this cannot come overnight, without an effective transition govt in place chaos was very much a possibility.  The Jan 28 movement forced Mobarak to appoint a new Cabinet of loyalists led by PM Air Marshal Shafik.  The military dissolved both the Houses of Parliament and suspended the Constitution but opted to keep the Transition Govt in place for six months, targetting elections during this period.  A Commission will recommend changes to the Constitution in 10 days, this will be put before a referendum within two months. To mollify the continued activism of the protestors in the streets, changes in Cabinet faces were promised in the coming days.  A sort of an “exit control list” (ECL) was put in place for some public servants (including the immediate former PM) and businessmen notorious for their corruption during the Mobarak era.    Whether all this will satisfy an awakened populace remains in doubt, Tahrir Square (and smaller Tahrirs thereof proliferating throughout Egypt) continues to resound with continuing protest without more tangible reassurances from the new military rulers.

Switzerland froze all of Mobarak’s (and his family’s) assets and accounts, the EU and Switzerland had earlier frozen the accounts of former President Ben Ali of Tunisia and his family.  With Brussels alive to the matter, EU countries are expected to clamp down on Mobarak and his clan.  Given stringent laws in the US about money-laundering and corruption, American silence on the issue is deafening and surprising.

That all existing international treaties and commitments would be honoured was re-assuring to the west. This should give Israel some breathing space, encouraging them to conclude lasting peace with the Palestinians in the changed security environment.  The next few days and weeks will be crucial to see what direction the Egyptian revolution takes, one is hoping that the “Higher Military Council’s” 180 days do not go on a decade (or more) like Ziaul Haq’s 90 days did! This would not be the first time in history that the military has used the blood of the masses spilt in the streets to hijack their sacrifice.   Popular at the outset with the masses, all four military coups in Pakistan remained so till the people belatedly realized it was less to do with their aspirations and expectations, more to do with their own (generals’) selfish ambitions. Two of the military coups, Generals Yahya Khan (1968) and Ziaul Haq (1977) were done under the camouflage of preventing anarchy because of the turmoil in the streets.   Ayub Khan (1958) and Pervez Musharraf (1999) actually pre-empted moves by civilian authority to sack them but successfully garbed their coups as potential saviours of the nation.

The Pakistani and Egyptian militaries resemble each other to some extent.  While Egypt has been a solid US ally for three decades, by going for the nuclear option Pakistan’s military  stayed out in the cold during the 90s decade.   The many benefits denied to those lower down the ranks separates them from the military hierarchy substantially during service and post-retirement in the quality of lives they lead.   Not surprising that my recent “A Roof for Every Public Servant” article attracted adverse reaction from a handful of the 0.001% of the military that benefits from the largesse denied to the majority 99.999%.  The tragedy is that the reaction is selfish and narrow-minded instead of comprehending the long-term complications thereof.  One does not grudge this minuscule minority their well-deserved benefits, the emphasis being on the term “well-deserved”.

Egypt’s Armed Forces is largely served by conscripts, Pakistan’s is all-volunteer. Since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egyptian soldiers have not seen battle in any form, this includes “Desert Storm” in 1991 against Saddam Hussain.  Egypt was forgiven US$ 30 billion in debt for their participation in the Coalition Forces, Pakistan with a bigger contingent was not forgiven a penny.   Our military has had considerable battle inoculation in Siachen and Kargil over the years, and now for the last three years have been engaged in successful counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Swat and Waziristan.  More and more officers reaching higher rank have had the privilege of hearing shots being fired in anger.  Unlike his predecessors, the welfare of soldiers is being addressed to an extent by Kayani, even he has shown no real inclination to eliminate those unnecessary perquisites that the hierarchy can do without.    Equitable distribution of welfare during service and post-retirement for all ranks (as well as public servants) is in the larger interest of the country.  This will be increasingly hard to ignore in the future, particularly if after Tunisia and Egypt the dominos keep on falling till the streets go aflame in Pakistan and the moment of truth arrives.

Across the entire Arab and muslim world, injustice and deprivation has been in abundance for thousands of years. Islam has tried over the centuries with intermittent success in trying to shrug off this yoke. Terrorism has gained from this inherent seething frustration.  We are at an interesting crossroads, it has taken only a few days of perseverance by a few true souls in the streets in Tunisia and Egypt to bring down tyrants (and their kith and kin) who were looting their country at will.  Yemen is sure to go, Jordan, Bahrain and Algeria are at considerable risk.  Our Armed Forces will soon face such an “acid test” in this country, much sooner than later.

The “Bangladesh Model” is now in place in Tunisia and Egypt, likely candidate Pakistan in the near future?

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