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How Trump’s reckless tweets could shake Pakistan’s fragile stability

Shahid Javed Burki says contrary to Trump’s assertions, Pakistan’s slow but steady progress in combating terrorism and strengthening democratic institutions is a possible model for Muslim-majority countries

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2018, 7:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2018, 7:32pm

Pakistan has joined the ranks of countries hit by one of US President Donald Trump’s characteristic tweet storms. In his first tweet of 2018, Trump declared that the US had “foolishly” given Pakistan more than US$33 billion in aid over the past 15 years, while Pakistan had returned only “lies and deceit” and given safe haven to terrorists. “No more!” Trump concluded. Now, the US is freezing its aid to Pakistan.

Like his sabre-rattling towards North Korea or his unilateral decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Trump’s attacks on Pakistan may play well with his base. But they will also have serious repercussions on Pakistan, where a number of shocks in the second half of 2017 have destabilised the country politically. And if Pakistan stumbles, the consequences will be felt across South Asia and in other parts of the Muslim world, where a functioning political system in Pakistan could serve as a valuable model.

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The roughly 50 Muslim-majority countries stretching from Bangladesh to Morocco have largely struggled to develop politically. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has been slipping towards authoritarian rule. Bangladesh, too, seems to be turning into a one-party system, after having made notable headway, particularly on the economic front. Now Pakistan – possibly the region’s best remaining hope – is also facing potentially disruptive setbacks.

Contrary to Trump’s accusations, Pakistan has made steady, albeit slow, progress over the past decade, both in combating terrorism and in consolidating democratic institutions. That progress began in 2007, when a group of lawyers initiated a mass protest movement in response to an unconstitutional decision by Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s fourth military president, to suspend the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The movement, backed by several political parties, forced Musharraf to step down in 2008, to avoid impeachment.

In the subsequent general election, competitive politics came to the country with the Pakistan Peoples Party winning enough seats in the national assembly to form a solid government while the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) gained control of the provincial assembly in Punjab, the country’s largest province. When the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, won the next general election, the transfer of power occurred peacefully, another milestone for Pakistan.

The still-powerful generals watched these developments from the barracks to which they had retreated. After more than 60 years of changes in military leadership coming only after coups, the civilian-led government replaced the commander of the armed forces at the end of his term. This was the third momentous achievement for the rule of law and democratic development in Pakistan.

Given the fragility of its democratic institutions and the lingering threat of terrorism, the destabilising potential of Sharif’s removal should not be underestimated

Then, in 2016, the Panama Papers revealed that members of the Sharif family had illegally transferred huge amounts of money into numerous offshore companies, which had invested in expensive properties in London and the Middle East. These disclosures sparked Pakistan’s own “Arab spring”, with young people rebelling against the elite-dominated political system. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – a political party led by former cricketer Imran Khan – threatened to call its young supporters into the streets if the Sharif family’s financial dealings were not properly investigated. Given Pakistan’s history of military intervention in politics in response to popular protest, the threat had to be viewed seriously.

Pakistan avoided political escalation when the judiciary decided to investigate the Panama Papers’ revelations. In July, the Supreme Court announced its verdict: Sharif had acted improperly and could not remain a member of the national assembly, let alone prime minister. Sharif’s party elected Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a respected cabinet member, as party leader and prime minister. Military leaders expressed satisfaction with how the situation was handled.

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Nevertheless, given the fragility of its democratic institutions and the lingering threat of terrorism, the destabilising potential of Sharif’s removal should not be underestimated. Trump’s insistence on playing to his nationalist and xenophobic (specifically, anti-Muslim) base heightens the risk.

There is, however, reason for hope. Pakistan’s response to its recent political challenges indicates a continued commitment to the fight for democracy – a commitment that could serve as a badly needed model for many other Muslim-majority countries.

Shahid Javed Burki, a former finance minister of Pakistan and vice-president of the World Bank, is chairman of the Shahid Javed Burki Institute of Public Policy in Lahore. Copyright: Project Syndicate