In Pakistan there is the anguished introspection and self-comforting, posturing, and handholding that only natural disasters on the scale of the recent floods can inspire. In makeshift camps that have come up in the middle of roadway medians, at air bases flying impossible rescue missions, at corner shops, and on television, God seems to be on everyone’s mind.
While the country’s volatility, militancy, and nuclear capacity certainly pose a geopolitical risk, a lot has changed since NEWSWEEK called Pakistan the world’s most dangerous nation three years ago. The qualities of mercy, forgiveness, and grit—those staples of the God-fearing—have risen above other longstanding, even pathological, problems and come to define the nation of late. The seemingly inexhaustible capacity of Pakistanis to forgive themselves, and each other, gives them the sense of purpose and selflessness to journey on—and provides the country with its little-understood strength.
No one knows forgiveness quite like President Asif Ali Zardari. After the assassination of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, he shouted down angry supporters who demanded the secession of Sindh province, Zardari and Bhutto’s home, from Pakistan. He has kept intact his rancorous but ultimately peaceful relationship with Nawaz Sharif, another twice-elected prime minister, who in the 1990s had ordered Zardari’s arrest and torture. For a brief period two years ago, Zardari was the country’s most popular man, and he was overwhelmingly elected president. He has now returned to being one of the country’s most reviled, especially after his tone-deaf tour of France and England while Pakistan was being devastated by floodwaters. Zardari is now compensating with aggressive compassion, touring affected areas dressed in a dark shalwar kameez with a Sindhi cap and somber expression, instead of the suit and smile he normally wears.
Because of their numbers and capacity for withstanding abuse, Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party are in alliance with every major political party—including Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz—in all elected assemblies in the country. This big-tent approach has helped calm tensions in the smaller provinces, where alienation often manifests as violence toward the state. The rancorous coalition predicated on forgiveness has yielded some big wins for Pakistan’s democracy. In April the near-unanimous passage by Parliament of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which weakened the president’s powers—notably, nullifying that office’s right to dissolve Parliament—coupled with an unexpected national revenue-sharing agreement among the country’s four provinces, led Zardari to remark, “There is acceptance of everybody’s political position and rights, and it shows a great maturity that I feel the democratic forces in Pakistan have achieved.”
More than two years after their return to greater national relevance, Zardari’s and Sharif’s parties seem to have broken the claw-and-kill cycle that once marked their relations. The old tensions still simmer just below the surface, but the parties have come together when it’s mattered most, like they did for passage of the 18th Amendment. Neither Zardari nor Sharif has ever been accused of caring too much for the country or being unimpeachably honest. Sharif has come close on several occasions but always stopped short of calling for the ouster of the ruling party. Last year Zardari dismissed Sharif’s government in the Punjab, and Sharif was also briefly detained.
The overthrow of any government is impossible without the endorsement of the Army, which continues to call the shots on foreign policy and national security. The Army runs Pakistan’s largest corporate empire. It is in every line of business, including hairdressing. And while it is the country’s only truly egalitarian organization, where pluck ensures social advancement and the fulfillment of the Pakistani dream, its growth has come entirely at the expense of other institutions and has starved public-sector development. Each time it has assumed power, the country has lost ground—literally and metaphorically—starting with the handing over to China of a part of Kashmir in 1963. The petrodollar- and U.S.-funded Afghan jihad brought down the Soviet Union but left Pakistan awash with the militancy the Army once fostered, and is battling today partly as atonement.
Under Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Army has consciously been working to redeem itself by overt displays of professional, apolitical conduct. It’s been given a fillip by its operations against the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan, its handling of the refugee crisis from Swat, and the rescue and relief efforts after the floods. But by its outré patriotic outrage last year over U.S. aid—and the behind-the-scenes pressure on the Zardari’s government to restore the unconstitutionally dismissed Iftikhar Chaudhry as the country’s chief justice—it remains engaged in politics, if only to protect its own interests (which it sees as interchangeable with national interests).
Military and civilian autocrats have always been able to bend the judiciary to suit their wishes. This changed in 2007 when Pervez Musharraf, the last of the country’s four military rulers, tried to fire Chaudhry because of his growing independence. When Chaudhry, who had sworn an oath of allegiance to the Musharraf administration in 2000, refused to back down, the lawyers’ movement was born. The movement—an unprecedented, largely peaceful nationwide mobilization of lawyers, civil-society activists, and political parties—was fueled by Chaudhry’s everyman heroism and permanently weakened Musharraf. Chaudhry was reinstated by his Supreme Court peers in July 2007 but put under house arrest four months later when Musharraf imposed emergency rule. The chief justice was restored to office again in March 2009. Today the Supreme Court under Chaudhry is an equal-opportunity offender, and in reclaiming its jurisdiction, its zeal has sometimes been misplaced. (For instance, the court struck down the amnesty order issued by Musharraf that led to the return of both Bhutto and Sharif. In the detailed judgment, the court excoriates corrupt, self-loathing elites as well as the Army. The court is currently hearing cases that could bring down Zardari. But Chaudhry knows that removing Zardari will be messy and that the ensuing confusion could destroy the court.)
The lawyers’ movement inspired by Chaudhry’s defiance would not have been possible without the activism of the press. Pakistan has more than 60 cable channels and, despite an occasional kerfuffle with the government, the fiercely vocal media remain sufficiently powerful to prevent any meaningful defamation laws from being legislated. Absent such laws, claims of freedom of expression by the media will continue to be an excuse for their excesses. Even if they are sometimes selective and hysterical, the media’s scrutiny of politicians—who were previously accountable only to the Army—is good for Pakistani democracy. A television commentator excoriated Sharif’s government in Punjab for providing taxpayer money to the philanthropic arm of the local Qaeda affiliate Lashkar-e-Taiba. Pakistani TV channels are not perfect—until recently, many networks glorified terrorists, even referring to killed militants with honorifics—but they are helping to modernize the nation’s politics.
What’s more, tolerance for violence is abating. National revulsion at the assassination of Bhutto; the Taliban’s overreach in the Swat Valley and their merciless public flogging of a 16-year-old girl (caught on video); and the spate of suicide bombings in urban centers turned 80 percent of Pakistanis strongly against suicide attacks, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. The limited aid work being done by front organizations for militant groups in flood-affected areas will, at least temporarily, help restore their public image, but the poll is a clear sign that Pakistanis are fed up with militancy.
Pakistanis have a been-there, done-that wariness of political experimentation, and they’ve settled on representative democracy as the solution. Citizens have repeatedly rejected the artificial strictures placed by military rulers on political figures like Bhutto and Sharif by voting them in. The political resurrections of Zardari and Sharif are not for lack of options; these are just who the people want to govern them.
Tensions among the government, Army, judiciary, and media are new and healthy for Pakistan. Each institution tests boundaries now and then, but they tend to back down when overstepping might cause civil strife. Each institution sometimes commits overreach in order to achieve the acceptable middle ground that it had quietly and actually always sought. (For instance, allies of the Army first said Pakistan should reject all American aid conditioned on civilian control of the military, but once politicians had promised the generals considerable autonomy, they backed down and Pakistan got its cash.) From these tensions, an uneasy equilibrium of tolerance and forgiveness has emerged. This equilibrium should last, and be preserved, at least until 2013, when Zardari, Chaudhry, and Kayani all complete their terms in office.
Social and political activism, discouraged under military rule, is back, fueled by modern platforms like Facebook. Unlike protests in the U.S. and Europe against the Iraq War, street demonstrations in Pakistan tend to yield results, as they did with Judge Chaudhry’s restoration. This sense of empowerment is amplified and assisted by the press—and it is not limited to politics: students and civil-society activists undertook one of the largest humanitarian relief operations in Pakistan’s history after the 2005 earthquake. Similar fervor is on display as Pakistan faces the aftermath of the floods.
Politicians will make mistakes. But regret, says Zardari, is an indulgence. “Life has so many regrets, you can’t even start,” he told NEWSWEEK PAKISTAN. “But then you forgive yourself, accept the fact that you were wrong, and go on.” That’s a lesson Pakistan knows well.
Ahmed is the editor of NEWSWEEK PAKISTAN. This is adapted from his cover story for the magazine’s first issue.