Mubarak and Presidential Absolutism
By Dr Ahmad Faruqui
At age 23, Louis XIV ordered
his ministers to assist him with their counsels
only when he asked for them and further ordered
them “to seal no orders except by my command.
. . I order you not to sign anything, not even a
passport . . . without my command.” That man,
who would one day say, L'etat c'est moi (I am the
state), was the poster image of the absolute monarch.
During that era, absolutism allowed kings throughout
the globe to make laws, tax, administer justice,
control the state’s administrative system,
and determine foreign policy without any checks
and balances. Today, presidents such as Musharraf
and Mubarak carry on the legacy of absolutism.
There are rumors that Musharraf plans to amend the
constitution of Pakistan to allow for a presidential
form of government. One wonders why, since constitutional
restraints have not prevented him for ruling Pakistan
as its chief executive for five-and-a-half years.
The general’s information minister has announced
that Musharraf will seek re-election in 2007. Even
though this has been characterized as the ministry’s
personal opinion, it cannot be dismissed lightly
since he had successfully predicted that contrary
to Musharraf’s assertions, the general would
not take off his uniform because to do so would
not serve the “national interest.”
Should the general win the 2007 election, and the
minister will see to that, Musharraf will be cleared
to lead the country for 13 years, longer than any
prior military ruler in Pakistan. But he would still
be a distant second to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak,
who has already ruled for 24 years. Mubarak, who
was vice president under Sadat and commanded the
Egyptian Air Force as an air marshal, has been “elected”
four times in polls with no opposing candidates.
It is difficult to recall how many prime ministers
have come and gone on his watch.
Soon after the parliamentary elections in the fall
of 2002, Musharraf was asked by a reporter to name
the next prime minister of Pakistan. He replied
with a counter question: “How many know the
name of the prime minister of Egypt?” None
did. Then he asked, “How many know the name
of the president of Egypt.” Everyone did,
allowing Musharraf to close off the discussion with
He then plucked one Zafarullah Khan Jamali out of
obscurity and installed him as the prime minister.
Within a year, Jamali was gone and replaced with
Shaukat Aziz, the general’s finance minister,
who had never held political office nor lived in
Pakistan for three decades.
Now there is word that Aziz may be on the way out
and his commerce minister, Humayun Akhtar Khan,
son of the late General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, the
ISI chief who conducted General Zia’s Afghan
jihad, may be the next one in.
Once again, Musharraf may find himself competing
with Mubarak, who will be seeking a fifth six-year
term as president when Egypt holds its first multi-party
elections in September. Why? Because President Bush
wants it. In early February, President Bush publicly
challenged Mubarak to open up Egypt’s political
system. In May, Bush decreed, “Egypt will
hold a presidential election this fall. That election
should proceed with international monitors and with
rules that allow for a real campaign.”
Like Aziz, Egypt’s new prime minister, is
a well-educated and competent technocrat but that
cannot hide the fact that he is a political pygmy.
Ahmed Nazif, with a doctorate in engineering from
Canada’s McGill University, had previously
served as the minister for communications and information
technology in Atef Obeid’s cabinet.
Nazif has predicted that Mubarak will win the elections
in September since it “will be difficult to
challenge him.” In an interview with Business
Week, he qualified this statement as a personal
opinion. Rumors are rife that in 2011, Mubarak will
turn over the presidency to his son, Gamal Mubarak.
When Nazif was asked about that possibility, he
countered: “Is it really forbidden for a son
of a President to be active politically?”
Gamal is active politically and has rebuilt the
ruling National Democratic Party into a serious
force that draws businessmen and academics.
Perhaps that is where the analogy between Musharraf
and Mubarak will have to end. Musharraf, who has
not revealed any succession plan, is unlikely to
be followed by his son who lives in the US.
The Egyptian constitution was amended last week
through a referendum to allow a multi-party election
to be held. In that respect, Pakistan is much further
along in its political evolution. Egypt has no secular
parties to speak of. The only opposition party of
any note is the Muslim Brotherhood, which boycotted
the referendum and will probably not be allowed
to participate in the September election. Pakistan
has two mainstream secular parties that have been
in power several times and several religious parties.
But even then, the similarities between Musharraf’s
Pakistan and Mubarak’s Egypt outweigh the
differences. Both have solidly allied themselves
with the Bush administration’s war on terror.
While a lunatic fringe feels that the best way to
establish God’s rule on earth is to contravene
his precepts and kill innocents, the vast majority
in both countries has condemned terrorism. Even
then, the majorities find it hard to endorse the
manner in which their governments have blindly supported
Washington. Anti-Americanism has reached high levels
in both countries. The US Congressional Research
Service, while lauding Pakistan’s contributions
to the war on terror, has noted recently that Pakistan
has the highest incidence of anti-Americanism in
the globe. A Zogby International poll showed that
nine out of ten Egyptians disapproved of US polices,
even though Washington has given Cairo $50 billion
Egypt, one of the world’s top tourist destinations,
is fast becoming a torture destination. Without
ever having been a top tourist destination, Pakistan
is catching up on Egypt as a torture destination.
Human Rights Watch has focused attention on how
American FBI agents turned a blind eye to the confinement
and alleged torture of two American brothers who
were held in Pakistan without charges during an
eight-month period. In an Orwellian twist, Pakistani
police would not open up a case against the kidnappings
since intelligence agencies were involved in its
execution. This crime was sanctioned by absolutism.
While pushing Mubarak to hold “real elections,”
the Bush administration is not doing the same to
Musharraf. Egypt, as the largest Arab country, certainly
holds the key to what happens in the Middle East.
But Pakistan, as the Muslim world’s only nuclear
power and second largest nation, holds the key to
what happens in the entire Muslim world.