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Myth Of Indispensability – Part III: Musharraf, And The Shakespearean Tragedy

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General Musharraf was the last of the four army generals who have ruled Pakistan, so far. In this third part of his Myth of Indispensability series, Ahmad Faruqui explains how Musharraf, convinced of his indispensability, never devised an exit strategy for himself and was ultimately undone by his own vanity. Part II can be read here.

General Pervez Musharraf would have retired from service three years after his appointment as army chief in October 1998, had it not been for his “victory” in Kargil in the spring of 1999. In any other country, such a misadventure would have resulted in premature retirement. Instead, it propelled him into the top job in Pakistan just a few months later.

Musharraf was welcomed at home by a nation weary of ineffective and corrupt democratic leaders but condemned internationally for deposing an elected government. This duality reversed itself after September 11, 2001. Musharraf’s bold response to this tragedy solidified his position in the West just as surely as it began to create domestic disenchantment with his rule.

For years, he would remain the darling of the West, which continued to shower him with accolades and contributed billions of dollars of financial and economic assistance to his government. At home, he continued to fight a crisis of legitimacy, brought on nominally by his “volte face” on the uniform issue.

Musharraf’s domestic crisis was exacerbated by his unwillingness to share power with any independent civilian group. He displayed no signs of exiting the stage. By overstaying his welcome, he alienated himself from the liberal segments of Pakistani society, his battle call for enlightened moderation notwithstanding. His close affiliation with the foreign policy of the Bush administration, which caused him to pursue the counter-insurgency campaign in Waziristan, alienated the conservative segments.

To justify his policies, Musharraf invoked the national interest as if it were his exclusive preserve. He argued that he saved the country from ruin and asserted that without him and his uniform, the country would have become a failed state, echoing similar claims that had been made by Ayub, Yahya and Zia.

All along, and specifically in a manner reminiscent of Ayub, he claimed to have done more for democracy than any prior leader. He was trapped in the Dictator’s Paradox: The more authority he claimed, the less power he wielded. What had worked for him on the battlefield failed him on the political field.

Of course, there was a silver lining for him in the dark clouds. The positive developments on the macroeconomic front in the first few years, brought on largely by US-sponsored economic aid and private investments from the Gulf region, won over certain segments of society to him. Confident about his place in history, the general even published a memoir whose title was filched from a movie by Clint Eastwood.

He also created a presidential website to showcase his achievements. The site also acted as a portal for the government of Pakistan, confirming that he is not only the head of state but also the head of government in addition to being the army chief. Shahid Javed Burki, a not-so-secret admirer of prior military rulers, presented a flattering account of Musharraf’s first five years in office.

General Musharraf’s epic journey was in many ways evocative of Coriolanus, a military and political leader of ancient Rome whose career is described by the Greek historian Plutarch in his “Lives.” Born Caius Marcius into a rich and famous family, he earned the title Coriolanus after a major victory at Corioli in 493 BC against the Volscians, a neighboring tribe of Rome.

Around the year 1600, William Shakespeare drew upon Plutarch’s history to dramatize the life of Coriolanus. T.S Eliot considered this play to be Shakespeare’s finest tragedy. Other critics have ranked it lower than Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello. Coriolanus as a prideful general is the least sympathetic protagonist among Shakespeare’s tragic figures and this may be the reason for the mixed appraisal of the play.

However, it has more contemporary relevance than anything else in the Bard’s repertoire, since it embodies a long-running debate on autocracy versus democracy. Shakespeare depicts a society undergoing tumultuous change, struggling to adjust to a new form of government.

Until recently, Rome was ruled by a king and the people had no independent voice. Now, in the early years of the republic, they participate in the election of consuls. Tribunes, representing their interests, defend them against abuses of power. In many ways, the situation resembles today’s Pakistan, a young republic struggling to define its body politic after centuries of imperial rule.

One of the play’s main characters, an aristocrat named Menenius, compares the state to a human body in which different classes of society are its parts. The aristocrats (i.e., the landowning classes) are the “belly” and the lower-class commoners are the “toe”. Coriolanus, as a fierce, noble and proud military leader, represents the “arms” of the Roman state.

General Coriolanus dominates the play, just as General Musharraf once dominated Pakistan’s political stage. Both are men of action whose physical strength and courage are legendary. Coriolanus is perhaps the greatest warrior of his age. It is said that Musharraf’s personal heroism inspires other soldiers and men willingly follow him into battle. But like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, he is not a natural leader.

In the denouement of Shakespeare’s play, after failing to persuade Romans to align them with his rule, Coriolanus turns against Rome and is banished. In the ultimate irony, he joins the Volscians and makes war on Rome. However, his mother persuades him to call off the attack, which enrages the Volscians under Aufidius so much that they kill him. To paraphrase Aufidius, the virtues of war had become the vices of peace for the man on horseback. Dismounted, he was a sorry creature.

Coriolanus approximates the tragic heroes of an ancient Greek drama, a great man who is brought low by his hubris. Over-riding egoism can only terminate in desolation, as Plato said. Such an ego prevented Musharraf from developing an exit strategy since he was convinced of his indispensability.

Shakespeare endued his central character with a deeper flaw in the form of a pathological dependency upon his mother. As she reminds him in two pivotal scenes, he is her creation. In the end, Coriolanus cannot simply sever himself from the body politic of his motherland, for his identity depends upon his mother’s esteem.

General Musharraf was a creature of the army, which was his “mother.” The nine Corps Commanders, symbolizing this mother, lurked in the background and appeared on stage whenever major decisions were being made. In the end, they were the ones who prevailed upon Musharraf to change his mind about the uniform.

Unfortunately, it was too late. The world collapsed around him and he was forced to step down from office.

Musharraf handover to Kayani

Pakistan’s national interest is best conceptualized and served by popularly elected civilians, not by any Coriolanus. Unless strong civilian institutions can be allowed to develop, Pakistan will return to be ruled by strong men whose lives will echo those of history’s tragic characters.


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Naya Daur