Mubarak's Pain Should Be Musharraf's Gain

Nisid Hajari writes editorials on Asia for Bloomberg View. He was managing editor and foreign editor of Newsweek magazine, as well as an editor and writer at Time Asia in Hong Kong. He is the author of “Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition.”
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Watching Egypt's self-immolation, Pakistanis might well congratulate themselves on no longer contending for the title of most dysfunctional Muslim country. In Cairo judges have shamelessly ordered the release of former military dictatorHosni Mubarak. In Rawalpindi, on the other hand, judges have charged former military dictatorPervez Musharraf with murder for the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the ex-prime minister who had sought to restore civilian rule to Pakistan. Score one for the rule of law over military fiat, right?

Not necessarily. A year ago Egyptians, too, thought they had finished off decades of military rule with Mubarak's trial. Putting the once-omnipotent dictator behind bars sent a stark message to the generals, judges, bureaucrats and cronies who had flourished under the ancien regime: People power was stronger than any strongman. Yet Egyptians are learning that systems, too, are more powerful than strongmen.

What's remarkable is that Pakistan's military even allowed a civilian court to indict one of its former chieftains. But the generals in Rawalpindi no doubt realize how weak the case against Musharraf is. Even the chairman of the U.N. panel that investigated the Bhutto assassination has said that he could find no ``proof of culpability'' against the former dictator. Musharraf's lawyers have decried the charges as politically motivated, with some reason. Top figures in Pakistan's judiciary have waged a long-running campaign against Musharraf that dates to his days in power.

The truth is that a Musharraf trial would actually do very little to cement civilian rule in Pakistan. The chances that any conviction would be credible are slim. The army can well afford to stand back for now: While embarrassing and no doubt unpleasant for Musharraf, the indictment hardly threatens the military as an institution, its power or its vast array of perks. Most top commanders owe their promotions to current army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, not to Musharraf.

The civilian leaders who have fared best against dominant militaries have done so by performing, not through show trials. There's a reason Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite his current unpopularity, has been in power for a decade and Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who replaced Mubarak as Egyptian President, lasted barely one: Though he confronted a military establishment at least as well-entrenched as Egypt's when he came to power, Erdogan has delivered years of economic growthand steadily rising incomes. When he used the courts to attack elements of Turkey's ``deep state,'' the old guard couldn't strike back. The fury of Erdogan's supporters would indeed have been too powerful for the military to handle.

Pakistan's recently elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should understand this better than anyone. The corruption and dysfunction that marred his second turn as prime minister in the late 1990s gave Musharraf the excuse he needed to seize power in the first place. Since his inauguration in May, Sharif has talked relentlessly ofbread-and-butter issues-- fixing Pakistan's dire electricity shortage, jump-starting trade with India, improving infrastructure. An economic revival would do more than anything else to insulate him against the possibility of another army takeover, and to allow civilian institutions the time they need to take root.

Revenge is tempting. In June Sharif's government called for Musharraf to be tried for treason, which would carry the death penalty. That might well be pushing the army too far, though -- and it would do next to nothing to improve the lives of ordinary Pakistanis. They deserve justice no less than Egyptians do. But watching Mubarak walk free and the military ruthlessly reassert itself in Cairo, it's hard to argue that sending Musharraf to the gallows would provide anything more than a spectacular, ill-advised distraction.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Nisid Hajari at