The New Muslim World: Dictators on Trial

The Muslim world has now witnessed several instances of a former dictator being exiled under threat of prosecution or actually being forced to appear in court to face charges arising from illegal actions performed while dictator. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia has fled to Jedda, in Saudi Arabia. Sayf al-Din Gaddafi is awaiting trial in Libya. Hosni Mubarak and his sons Gamal and Alaa are facing trials in Egypt. This kind of outcome is rare. No one from the old Apartheid regime in South Africa was ever tried, despite their brutality, though they sometimes had to confess their crimes in order to avoid being prosecuted. But that former dictators are being replaced by parliamentary elections, and are mostly facing the music in a court of law, is a sea change in the politics of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf was placed in house arrest on Friday morning when he appeared in court. He returned to the country from exile abroad on March 24, announcing that he would contest the upcoming elections and would save the country.

Aljazeera English reports:

It is so odd that Musharraf went back to Pakistan, where he would have been impeached by parliament had he tried to stay in office in August of 2008 after he had been forced into relatively free and fair parliamentary elections. Musharraf had high-handedly dismissed the supreme court justice Iftikhar Chaudhury in 2007, and then dismissed the whole supreme court later that year because they stood in the way of his becoming a civilian president (the Pakistani constitution says that the president must have been a civilian for two years before assuming office, and Musharraf wanted to go straight from his uniform to a presidency for life). I treated the Musharraf years and his ouster by thousands of angry protesters in my book, Engaging the Muslim World. Dick Cheney was Musharraf’s biggest backer.

Musharraf had been army chief of staff and made a coup against the then elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whose Muslim League may well win the coming election. Given the reestablishment of the power of the Sharif family in Punjab, it just seems weird that Musharraf thought he’d be able to just to come back and run for office as if nothing had happened.

Musharraf has been barred by the courts and election officials from running for president, and several serious charges have been brought against him. Where will his case be decided? Ultimately, before the Supreme Court, by Iftikhar Chaudhury and his colleagues, whom Musharraf had tried to dismiss summarily. I saw this coming as soon as he announced his return. Why didn’t he? Was he given assurances by someone high in the Pakistani government, who then reneged on them?

Musharraf had by fiat jailed or exiled large numbers of people, including human rights activist and feminist Asma Jahangir, so he is now getting a taste of his own medicine.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak has been sent back to Tora Prison as he prepares to face new charges in a retrial for his past crimes.

One can argue about how democratic are the governments that replaced the dictators. Pakistan has been plagued by corruption and poor governance, and a seeming inability or unwillingness to get a handle on the security problem. But its civilian government, elected in 2008, served out a full 5-year term for the first time in Pakistani history. The Pakistani judiciary has emerged since 2007 as one of the more upright of the country’s institutions, and is clearly promoting a rule of law. Moreover in Pakistan, unlike in Egypt, the forces of political Islam did not come to power after the overthrow. Political Islam parties such as the Jama’at-i Islami typically get only 3 or 4 percent of the vote, and their biggest tallies have been no more than 15%. While Taliban bombings and other forms of insecurity plague the country and especially harm Shiites, Christians, Ahmadis and Sufis, the government is gradually fighting back against the far-right Muslim vigilantes.

4 Responses

  1. I have a question of English usage; do you “make a coup”? That sounds wrong to my ear. I do hear is a lot so my ear may be defective.

    It seems that you can plot a coup, execute a coup, and stage a coup but do you make a coup?

  2. If Omar al-Bashir, mass murderer, goes on trial that would have profound implications for both the Middle East and Africa. He seems to receive a lot of international tolerance, unlike other dictators though.

  3. Professor Sahib.

    Pakistan Army still calls the shots in Pakistan, and it has a very high and sensitive ego. Nobody in the country has character power or spine to take on it. Look how Supreme Court’s orders to produce missing persons have been flouted. This organization has kidnapped and executed scores of hundreds of citizens in the country especially in Baluchistan. It will never let its former chief be arrested. Besides, other stake holders such as Saudi Arabia, the United States will never let Musharraf be arrested. Or it will give the wrong signal to other US cronies ruling Muslim and Arab land. While you adduced example of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak’s being tried, the real striking example would be how Turkey’s generals have been arrested and tried in the court of law.

    Regards,

    Faheem

  4. I’m not as optimistic as the Professor.

    Secular and ethnic parties’ activists are constantly murdered by the TTP, hence hurting their public election campaigns which had to be cancelled a good number of times, while the rightwing and/or religious parties are left unscathed, where even a notorious sectarian Sunni extremist party that is linked to LeJ and TTP terrorists are publicly contesting the elections.

    There was also an issue of elections’ officials asking inappropriate religious nationalist ideological questions of candidates, going in so as far as disqualifying one of the most respected intellectuals who happens to be a secular liberal columnist.

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