A Conversation With Dawn Editorial Writer And Op-Ed Columnist Cyril Almeida
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A Conversation With Dawn Editorial Writer And Op-Ed Columnist Cyril Almeida

By Ahsan

Over the last few days, Dawn editorial writer and op-ed columnist Cyril Almeida has been kind enough to exchange a bunch of emails with yours truly. We talked about the job description of an op-ed columnist, the state of journalism in Pakistan, the performance of the Zardari government thus far, the Swat/Taliban war, Brigadier Imtiaz and his many recent pronouncements, and the MQM. Without further ado…
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Ahsan: Hi Cyril,


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Thank you for agreeing to do this. I’m sure our readers will appreciate it as much as I do.

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First things first. Your profile on your webpage says you studied law at university. Why would you give up a lucrative career in law to write op-ed pieces? All my lawyer friends in Pakistan like their life (at most times) and very few of my journalist friends in Pakistan like their life (at most times). What gives?


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Cyril: Thanks, Ahsan. Happy to be here answering, or try to answer, whatever questions you have.


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Seems to me that maybe you know very successful lawyers and not-so-successful journalists, but even then I would question whether lawyers enjoy their lives (as opposed to their work, or the lucrativeness thereof) more than journalists.

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After doing a second BA in England, I returned to Pakistan to practice law, finding a place at a small firm in Karachi. A year and change later, I had serious doubts about whether I wanted to be in the profession 10, 15, 20 years down the road.

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I still enjoy law as a subject, but the practice of law is a very different, dare I say, deadening, experience for the most part.

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Opting out at such an early stage was really on the basis of how the arc of a legal career works in Pakistan – you pay your dues, slogging away for two, three, four years on a pittance, then you enter the ‘decent compensation’ bracket and stay there for a while long before getting to partake in the lucrativeness.

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Because of that arc, the ‘cost’ of opting out gets higher and higher the longer you stay in the profession – I mean, who would spend 6-8 years of their lives with their eyes firmly set on the future and then, just when the real pay-off starts, opt out? Not many.

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So having doubts about the profession generally, I realised it was relatively less painful to leave early on, rather than be stuck doing something I didn’t enjoy for the rest (or a major chunk) of my life.

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Since enjoying what I do forms a large part of my decision on what I choose to do (call it old fashioned, idealistic, plain stupid, whatever), the media was something I was attracted to.

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I enjoy politics, political history, trying to make sense of where the country is headed, etc. and I like writing, so it eventually became a no-brainer.

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Not many people know this, but the column is actually something I do on my own time.

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My job at Dawn is to write the paper’s editorials on national politics, regional affairs/foreign policy and the economy sometimes – that’s what I do five, six, sometimes seven days a week.

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So I essentially get paid to do what would be a hobby otherwise, to do so having access to all the intellectual resources that the Dawn name brings, and then put my thoughts out there for what is without doubt, at least to my mind, the largest informed domestic and foreign audience interested in knowing what is happeing in the country – how’s that for a great life?

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Moreover, I have no office hours, I can write from any part of the country or the world, I can spend my day just reading, I meet interesting people – need I go on?


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Ahsan: Do you feel a sense of having influence, or perhaps less ambitiously, being on thinking people’s radar? You say that you enjoy putting your “thoughts out there for what is without doubt, at least to my mind, the largest informed domestic and foreign audience interested in knowing what is happening in the country”. As vulnerable you may feel in answering this question, do you think your opinion matters? On the one hand, as you imply, the movers and shakers read Dawn. But on the other hand, English newspapers’ circulation numbers in Pakistan are extremely low relative to the entire population; they are restricted mainly to the English speaking elite in the major urban centers of the country, and even then, the numbers would divided in half, with one half going to The News and the other Dawn (no one outside the Taseer family reads the Daily Times, I don’t think). Do you feel a sense of frustration that as hard as you work on your stuff, very few people actually end up reading it? Or is that tempered by that feeling of influence referenced earlier?

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Cyril: Influence? If you’re in it for the influence, then you’re half way up the wrong tree already.


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Part of the problem I have with many of the big players out here is that they’ve stopped being observers and, for all intents and purposes, consider themselves part of the political system. Making the news, shaping the news – how about just being an observer?

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Of course, I’m on the opinion side of things, so that means interpreting things and giving my, subjective, opinion.

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But on Dawn’s pages alone there are four writers every day, which means 28 opinions each week. (An oped columnist/contributor is published only once a week on the opinion pages.)

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Multiply that by the other national English dailies (I read DT every day, and there is also The Nation, which many forget) and you can see how your voice is just one of many, many people’s.

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I don’t write for the sake of addressing the subjects of my pieces, I write for the readers – people like myself who are just interested in knowing what’s going on, with no hidden agendas, no personal favourites, who don’t see too much evil or too much good in any situation or person or institution.

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Does my opinion matter to readers – that’s for them to decide.

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Frankly, I think readers don’t give themselves enough credit – they’re incredibly sharp and discerning (at least on the English side) and if you’re rubbish, they’ll let you know you’re rubbish by ignoring you pretty quickly.

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As for papers in English being only a small part of the newspaper market – yes, and that’s before you even begin to look towards the vastly bigger tv audience.

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But what are you going to do about it? If you grew up in Liechtenstein, would you wring your hands over your irrelevance for the rest of your life? I don’t think so.

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Besides, as I mentioned, the quality of the average reader of an English paper is better.

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So there are trade-offs, but since none of them are under my control, I don’t think about them too much.


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Ahsan: That’s a fair and reasonable way of thinking about things, I think. Though I think you majorly pissed off our readers from Liechtenstein, who tend to be very avid followers of our coverage of Swiss politics.

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Last question on journalism. If you were given Overlord powers, and you could change one thing about print journalism and the way it is practiced in Pakistan, what would it be? The rules for this question are: there are no unintended consequences to any of your decisions; you can’t make infinite changes with the wording of the response (i.e. no “If I had one wish, it would be that I have unlimited wishes” cheating); and finally that no one will know you are personally responsible (so aggrieved parties can’t run after you with pitchforks).


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Cyril: First of all, my sincere apologies to readers from Liechtenstein – I’m sure they are good people, the best even, and I didn’t mean to knock them at all.

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Simple: I’d pay better and have more people and better resources.

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Part of the problem with print journalism – and here I’m speaking of the English papers particularly – is that it draws its talent from a rather narrow and shallow pool. If you pay a subber or fresh reporter 20k and promise him perhaps double that in 3 years if they’re good, you’re not going to attract the most educated, the most capable – the ones who can connect the dots, see a bigger picture, etc.

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That’s not to say that there aren’t terrific reporters and in-house staffers at the papers – there absolutely are – but it’s a question of how many and how often you can find a solid employee who can get the job done at a high level of competence day in and day out across the various tiers of a newspaper hierarchy.

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Perhaps the industry suffers from the seth culture syndrome or perhaps the right person hasn’t appeared yet who can keep the business reasonably profitable AND raise its quality at the same time, but there’s a lot of room for improvement.

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Collectively, I’d argue that the big four national dailies and, a personal favourite of mine, the Business Recorder can keep a reader terrifically well informed – the problem is that no single paper manages to do that to a degree that is comfortable for someone to say, I read XYZ paper for three months and I know all there is to know about the issues that are of interest in the country right now.

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So yes, better – better paid, better educated, better informed, better writers, better reporters – that’s what I’d want and I think part of the answer is better pay right from the start.

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Talent follows money – it doesn’t have to be outrageous sums, just tempting enough to make a swathe of young English-speaking adults weight it as a genuine career option.

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Papers are in the information business and, at the end of the day, a paper is only as good as the people it has.


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Ahsan: Here’s how I would have answered my question: fire people for making shit up. I’m not going to name names (but I will say they sound a lot like “Kamid Nir”), but I’m amazed how many times I read stuff in newspapers which are simply untrue, or simply cannot be true. They just make it up! How can this be allowed to happen? I’m all for reading fiction, but not in newspapers.

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A close second would be not giving credence to ridiculously idiotic opinions as if they matter. No more asking A.Q. Khan for his opinion on matters of national security. If you’re that desperate for a quote, you’re in the wrong business. No more asking for Sarfraz Nawaz on Younis Khan’s captaincy. To be fair, this problem is not endemic to Pakistani journalism. Sarah Palin had a nonsensical op-ed in the Washington Post a couple months ago on…wait for it…climate change. At the time, a blogger I read regularly had this to say:
After all, why does Sarah Palin have an op-ed on climate legislation in the Washington Post? Does she have scientific expertise? Economic expertise? Knowledge of the state of international climate negotiations?

Perhaps during her brief time in the public spotlight she developed a reputation for an unusually solid grasp of complicated policy details? Or is the idea that she’s known for being honest? A good-faith participant in public policy debates?

Well, no.
The basic point is, don’t blame Sarah Palin. Blame the WaPo. Put differently, don’t hate the player. Hate the game. It’s high-school politics masquerading as journalistic balance — trying to get names and glitz and glamour when all we really need as readers of newspapers is a set of basic facts that are true. We, as readers, will take it from there, thanks.

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Coming in with the bronze medal for me would be your suggestion. I agree that print journalists are paid like crap, and if we want better journalism, we should get better journalists, and the only to do that is to pay them more. Particularly since the electronic journalism market is fairly deeply embedded in our culture, and they pay their people so much more — for work not nearly as important, I would argue — it really skews the incentives from a social welfare point of view.

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Let’s move on to a subject near and dear to both our hearts: politics.

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Your recent columns have betrayed a sense of cautious optimism on the direction of the country. A couple of weeks ago, you wrote:

The macroeconomic indicators have stabilised; inflation is down; the power crisis will ease now that summer is over; suicide bombings are down; a degree of normality is returning to Swat; Baitullah Mehsud is dead and his headquarters in South Waziristan is under siege; the judicial crisis is over; a truce, albeit an uneasy one, is holding in Punjab; the American demands to ‘do more’ against the Taliban are muted; drone strikes are less of a political hot potato; relations with India are edging towards a post-Mumbai phase; parliament is upping its legislative activity — it’s not quite singing-in-the-rain happy, but neither is it the nightmare that was Pakistan in 2007 and 2008.


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My question to you would be: is this a bit of an accident, or does President Zardari and his team actuall deserve credit for this? And if the answer is “neither”, are there any set of actors whose role you would particularly highlight? Or is that simply the wrong way of looking at things — that is, we really shouldn’t be looking at particular people, but rather particular events and contingent outcomes that have led to this relative stabilization?


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Cyril: The bronze position – if effected – would, to my mind, fix the silver and gold problems to a large degree – you’d have less idiotic opinions and people wouldn’t make stuff up as much.


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Ah yes, politics – the country’s real national sport.

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First, and this is by no means a wriggle, I think its important to define what merits credit.

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Start with the obvious – doing nothing isn’t an option. Even at the worst times in Pakistan’s history, a government couldn’t be charged with doing absolutely nothing about anything. The executive is enormous and the government that heads it at any given time also large – as we rightly complain. So, something somewhere will always get done.

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The question, then, is really about zooming out, identifying the big issues and then trying to figure out who deserves credit for what.

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There were three big crises that the government had to confront following the February 2008 elections: militancy, the economy and a crisis of governance and politics.

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Take just one: the economy. The government has taken some brave, very unpopular steps, by rolling back subsidies, particularly on power, and imposing some fiscal discipline (yes, there are wastages, colossal in the eyes of the common man, but they foreign junkets, large cabinets, etc. don’t add up to much in percentage terms in the, and I stress, short term). And they have got money from IFIs when we were absolutely desperate (though the militancy issue and our relevance in that fight helped a fair bit).

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But the handling of the power crisis has been poor and the rental power solution may break some of the banks down the road and make electricity too expensive for businesses to afford; they took too long to bring stability to the finance ministry (we had three different advisers in the space of months and the office of secretary finance was tossed back and forth between two individuals in a bizarre turf battle); the implementation of the BISP has left much to be desired (Kaiser Bengali’s plan, despite its detractors, seemed decent to me, but inevitably ownership was transferred to politicians, and that has created its own problems) – same with other emergency social protection schemes; the tax burden is as skewed as ever despite them having a year to plan the new budget, etc.

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So a very mixed bag – overall, I’d give them a C. Painful steps have been taken, yes, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that they were inevitable and would have been forced through by anyone else in the same position – and there is the fact that they done little that is ‘good’ from a long-term perspective. Give them some points though for not royally screwing up.


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Ahsan: I think your last sentence pretty much sums up the level of expectations for our leaders. I would agree with your grade of C, with the addendum that it used to be an F until, say, the one-year mark of the February elections. I think the war going better is a bit of an accident in the sense that the urge to actually fight was only ignited by the Buner-incursion of the TTP; if they (the TTP) had been satisfied with biding their time, the Army would have continued to sit on their heels, the government would have continued to sign over swathes of Pakistani territory, and we would have all been filled with this terrible sense of foreboding. In the end, they were quite lucky that the Taliban showed themselves to be as unreliable as signatories can be, and public support for actually fighting the war picked up. But — Hussain Haqqani’s claims on the Daily Show notwithstanding — I am not prepared to grant that this was all part of a master plan.


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On the economy front, I’m disturbed that there seems to be little long-term thinking on the problems of power and electricity; though I do recall reading about a week ago that the Bhasha dam is now in the news again. Whether or not its plans are consigned to the dustbin of history owing to provincial and ethnic divisions a la the Kalabagh dam — as I deem likely — will only be revealed in the future. And I suppose American promises of help on this issue can do little harm, though you never know with us.

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I want to get your views on a couple of very specific issues. What are your thoughts on Jinnahpur-gate?

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Cyril: Re Swat. If there was a master plan, this wasn’t it (regardless of what the army and its acolytes say behind the scenes). The turning point was really Sufi Mohammad’s speech on the grassy ground where he denounced everything and anything, other than himself and his followers of course, as kafir and un-Islamic.

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The whole thing had been arranged by the government for him to call on Fazlullah to disarm and to support the government’s writ – but, legend has it, he played the ‘wrong’ tape instead over the microphones, one of his old speeches in which he, well, denounced everything and everything other than himself and his followers.

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So there was a plan – just not the one we’ve seen unfold since then.

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Jinnahpur – wow, a crazy one. I’ve written Dawn’s editorials on it and related matters and the big question, to my mind and others whose opinions I hold in high esteem, is the question of timing – why now?

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No one seems sure yet (and let this be another lesson in unintended consequences when you unleash loose cannons on the electronic media), but I’m not convinced it has more to do with Musharraf and less with Zardari.

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Could it be a ploy to push the PPP and PML-N further apart so that constitutional amendments are off the table again? Who benefits most from the status quo? You do the math.

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Ahsan: On the turning point of the war front, I’d say there were three factors. In no particular order, they were the anti-democracy, anti-everything speech you reference (though I have to admit, I’ve never heard of the “wrong tape” theory on this); the Buner incursion, and — don’t laugh — the Taliban-beating-the-girl video as well as the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers. I really think the last two episodes had a real galvanizing effect on the population. Now, you may argue that public support has mattered little to the military in its various adventures in the past, and I would agree with you. But I really think those two key moments provided focal points around which the entire country coalesced, and gave momentum toward an armed struggle. That’s how I saw it.

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On to Jinnahpurgate or rather, Brig. Imtiaz-gate. Perhaps some of our readers might not be fully aware of the situation, so let me provide some details here. If you think I miss something important, please fill in the gaps, or correct me. I then want to make a comment about what this episode says about our political culture and our society writ large.

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In the very recent past — I would say two weeks — a certain Brigadier Imtiaz (and Naseer Akhtar, no doubt) has fed a media frenzy with some interesting revelations. Brig. Imtiaz was a fairly key player in the military-intelligence establishment during the 1980s and early 1990s. He has made the following claims:

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1. During the Zia era in the 1980s, the ISI used, shall we say, extrajudicial measures to clamp down on left-wing groups, trade unions, labor unions and other admittedly bit players in an anti-socialist/secular crusade. Torture, “disappearances” and even murder was common. These claims by Brig. Imtiaz surprise no one; we all knew this already.

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2. During the end of Zia’s era and the Benazir’s first term, the ISI and the military used millions of publicly funded rupees to finance an anti-Benazir coalition, the IJI, of which Nawaz Sharif was the most recognizable symbol. When this campaign failed, and BB actually got elected, they did everything possible to undermine her government, and refused to let her get her hands on Afghan policy, Kashmir policy and nuclear weapons policy. These claims by Brig. Imtiaz surprise no one; we all knew this already.

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3. In 1992, as a purported casus belli to launch a military operation against the MQM, the military-intelligence establishment claimed to have found maps of “Jinnahpur”, meant to be a separate homeland for Mohajirs, at the headquarters and offices of the MQM. The idea was to demonstrate that the MQM was a treasonous party, wanted secession, and thus had to be dealt with by force — which they eventually were, in operations where thousands of MQM activists and workers were killed in fake encounters. We are now told from the horse’s mouth that there were no such maps, that they were fabricated by IB (another intelligence agency, dealing more with domestic matters), and, as usual, that it was all a load of crap designed only to malign the MQM. Moreover, the claim is made that then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif knew everything there was to know about these plans, and had no problems with them. These claims by Brig. Imtiaz surprise no one; we all knew this already.

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Now, these revelations have to be taken with the context that Nawaz Sharif and the PML(N) are, today, very stridently pushing to try former President Musharraf for treason.

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So…

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The revelations, such as they are, are thought to be accomplishing the following:

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1. Reminding people that Nawaz Sharif is no angel, that his role as champion of democracy and freedom and non-interference from the military is a very new one, and that he had no problems accepting money from the ISI to fight against Benazir’s election campaign first, and her government second. Moreover, it is meant to show he had little compunction in using force to deal with political opponents domestically.

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2. That there is a lot of dirty laundry within Pakistani politics, and if one man goes down for his crimes (Musharraf), there’s plenty more where that came from. So those who are pushing for so-called accountability should be careful.

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So the conventional wisdom is that this is all a ruse designed by Musharraf, sitting safely in England as we speak, and his minions to ward off the prospect of a trial. But as you point out, it’s not the only theory. Your theory says that it is more about Zardari than Musharraf and domestic political alignments; I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so maybe our readers will benefit from an explicit account of what you think is going on, and whether it’s orchestrated from one actor or not.

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I do want to make one general point though.

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More than most places, Pakistan has struggled to come to terms with its past. I am not talking about admitting to war crimes (in East Pakistan in 1971) as a society like, say, the Germans have. I am not talking about specific episodes that drift in and out of the public consciousness like the ISI-backed IJI and the role Nawaz Sharif played. I am not talking about partition, and how the entire country is still divided on what Jinnah wanted for us (secularism or not, for example), or why partition happened in the first place (you’d be amazed at the extent to which the academic historical literature is divided on this question).

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No, what I am referring to is the fact that we don’t even agree on what happened. Most disagreements in the political sphere in other countries focus on what implications to draw from certain events. So after World War I, some Germans thought that being the most powerful country in Europe was a fool’s errand, and that trying to accomplish it militarily was impossible, whereas other Germans thought the only mistake they made was giving up too soon, and that if the politicians hadn’t betrayed the military, they would have succeeded (the first group was right, the second one ended up in power in the 1930s — and we know how that turned out). But all Germans agreed they lost the war.

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With us, it’s completely different. We can’t deal with our past because we don’t have a common set of understandings from which respectful disagreements arise. Nawaz Sharif and his party have almost literally forgotten the late 1980s and early 1990s. The MQM simply pretends it’s not a thuggish party and hasn’t been responsible for hundreds of killings, extortion, bribery, and other assorted crimes in Karachi. The PPP actually thinks Benazir was liberal democracy personified. It’s not a matter of differing opinions. It’s a matter of different facts. Different histories. It’s almost like we were subjected to 170 million different history books in school. Everyone’s in their own world.

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I don’t know if I’m making sense. But this whole controversy has given me this sensation, which I’ve often felt in the past, that we as Pakistanis will go nowhere, and not learn from our past, until we actually agree on what the past actually was.

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Cyril: I’d add more, but it’s mostly there in Wednesday’s leader in Dawn and I will be fleshing it out some more this Friday in my own piece.

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About the operation against the MQM during the first Nawaz govt, I’d add there were at least two other big players involved: the president, GIK, and the army chief, Asif Nawaz.

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It is enormously complex and messy and we can’t be completely sure of what exactly happened on the basis of the current evidence in the public domain – which is precisely the problem you referred to: that we don’t ever seem to know anything more than rudimentary facts, if that.

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Frankly, in all this nonsense the one sensible (!) suggestion has been Altaf Husain’s: form a truth and reconciliation committee and investigate the allegations – and all other controversies, I say.

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There is so much that’s happened between the various parties that until they sit down and bury some of the ghosts from the past they will never be a match for the establishment/undemocratic forces’ divide-and-rule strategy.

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Wrap your head around this: the MQM and PMLN are feuding over something that happened in the first Sharif term but they were in govt together again during his second term! And during the PPP’s second term in the ’90s the MQM was crushed even more violently than in the Sharif crackdown – and now those two parties are back in government together!

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So clearly they can work with each other despite brutal histories, but what they can’t seem to do is work with each other for more than few months (or a year or so at most) or eschew dirty tricks when not seeing eye-to-eye.

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So, maybe if there is some national catharsis of sorts for these parties – a process that will show the world and each other that none of them have clean hands and how often they’ve been manipulated by the establishment for its own interests – they may learn to genuinely trust each other.

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That doesn’t mean they have to agree on policies and issues – we’re not talking a post-politics phase – but it does mean they may learn to abide by the rules of the game of electoral politics conducted within a constitutional framework.

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Will it definitely work? Who knows. But we’ve tried everything else – maybe it’s time we try the warm-and-fuzzy option. We could be in for a pleasant, nay radical, surprise.

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The dangers in not trying to change course is apparent today and in your question – AZ and NS potentially embarking on another bitter round of fighting that could dangerously destablise the system again, and all triggered by dragging up ghosts from the early ’90s.

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A truth and reconciliation process would at least deprive the politicians of some of the weapons they periodically use to inflict damage on each other and, inevitably, themselves.

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Ahsan: One of the things that struck me during this whole imbroglio, which you alluded to, was that the MQM has been one of the most flexible parties in Pakistan’s political history. They’ve been with and against every major political actor in the country at one time or another — the PPP, the PMLN, the military. I don’t think that true of any other major player. And as you say, it’s quite funny (in a tragicomic sense of the term) that it was the PPP government in Benazir’s second term that actually confronted them head-on and brought Karachi to a standstill, and it’s the PPP’s feudal politics that earn the MQM’s greatest ire, and yet the political and cosmic forces have aligned such that it is the PMLN facing the MQM’s umbrage right now, while the MQM sits happily in a quasi-alliance with the PPP.

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Now that we’re talking about them, I want to hear your thoughts on the MQM. I have never actually heard anyone not affiliated with the MQM say anything even remotely positive about the party. This is understandable on a number of levels — the violence, the Don-ism of Altaf Hussain, the needless prickliness, and the ability to basically stop Karachi in its tracks if it chooses to.

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But I find myself wondering if the MQM is not unfairly treated in the public discourse. The other day, I was having dinner with a bunch of Pakistanis I’ve recently started playing organized cricket with. They represent what I would say is a fairly wide swathe of the Pakistani population — from electrical engineers to techies to people who grew up poor in the outskirts of Murree and are now driving cabs in Chicago. The subject of the MQM came up, and I chose to tread carefully given my experiences discussing them in the past. The basic argument that was proffered, collectively, was that the MQM would never win any votes if it weren’t for its violence and extortion.

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As a student of politics, I find that desperately hard to believe. If parties only needed violence to win seats, then (a) everyone would be that violent, and (b) relatively peaceful parties would cease to exist. Clearly this is not the case. My opinion was that while the MQM has been historically violent, it has also been wronged by the state a number of times and that its organizational structure and its ability to respond to its constitutents in a timely and effective manner lead to its dominance in urban Sindh’s electoral politics. I was met with guffaws.

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My point is not necessarily to debate the merits and demerits of the MQM. Rather, I am interested in why the MQM doesn’t actually divide opinion — everyone agrees on its putative dastardliness. How, or why, is there such a one-sided picture of that party? To be clear, I’ve never voted for them, and I abhor their violence and thuggery. But surely there is more to the story? Why, more than other political entities in Pakistan, can people not recognize that about them?

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Cyril: The MQM is a complex political animal.

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It’s genesis, conventional wisdom has it, lies in the bid by the security establishment to break the hold of the PPP in urban Sindh at least. True perhaps to an extent, but that doesn’t tell you much about a party nearly 30 years on.

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After all, Sharif was similarly nurtured by the army in the ’80s, but look who he wants hanged today and at his troubles with earlier army chiefs in the ’90s.

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I’m told that people as eminent as Arif Hassan believed in the ’90s that the MQM represented an urban political revolution – a positive revolution – led by second- and third-generation immigrants who were finally organising a growing middle class in urban Sindh.

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Of course, history has turned out quite differently – though I’d argue that the party has two faces (real to a degree but often caricatureised/exaggerated): the thuggish, mafia-esque side and the cleaner, post-90s more acceptable political face.

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One thing that does irk me about the party is its aggravated sense of victimhood. The MQM is always the sufferer in the imagination of its leaders. It is congenitally disliked by the establishment, it has enemies everywhere out to destroy it and it must constantly fend off threats of all sorts to its position.

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True perhaps, but what you going to do about it? Nobody likes a whiner.

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Recognise also the reality of the extent to which the party has consolidated its hold over Karachi and built up a formidable arsenal (real and metaphorical) over the last decade under Musharraf. It’s preposterous. Forget victimhood, the MQM should be strutting like a peacock and have the swagger of a man who knows he’s untouchable.

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Though, in response to your cricketing friends’ claims, I’d say it’s a stretch to claim the MQM would not win a single seat – or vote – even if it had a ‘cleaner’ way of doing politics.

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There were certainly questions about the way, say, Farooq Sattar won his seat in February 2008, but there were other seats won that were no-brainers.

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And say what you will (though certainly not that tripe about fighting the impending ‘Talibanisation’ of Karachi), the MQM has secular credentials, or impulses at the very least.

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Ahsan: I’ve always been endlessly fascinated by the MQM. Maybe this is because I grew up in Karachi in the 1990s, but they’ve always been super interesting to me. The internal contradictions (a highly decentralized and meritocratic party led by a man who has few living enemies), the political agendas (an intensely aggressive, some would say fascistic, secular and ethnic identity), the violence, the dalliances and distances with the military, the restriction to urban Sindh despite a model of politics that can easily be replicated elsewhere — they’re just a really interesting case study on so many levels.

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I would agree that the victimhood thing is uber-annoying. I referred to it as needless prickliness in my email but I think the term “martyr complex” does a better job. Incidentally, they’re hardly alone in this respect. I just finished reading Steve Coll’s excellent book on South Asia from the early 90s, called On the Grand Trunk Road, and he devotes considerable space to both Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto seeing enemies everywhere, seeing half-baked conspiracies behind every closed door — basically everything you just ascribed to the MQM in your email. If you haven’t already read the book, I highly recommend it. And he’s such a brilliant and engaging writer too.

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I had a chance to read the editorial you wrote on the Brig. Imtiaz/PPP-PML(N) breakdown. I had a couple of questions to ask you about it, but then I decided against it given you’ll probably deal with it in greater detail in your Friday column.

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So let me ask a couple of personal questions before we wrap this up. Where do you see yourself going in the next ten years? Are you going to go the Ahmed Rashid route (write an investigative book, make a name for yourself in a particular field, and then make gazillions in talks and lectures on the think tank, university and DC circuit)? Are you going to go the Mohammad Hanif route (drift in and out of retirement, write a novel, chill with your kids)? Or, perhaps most entertainingly, are you going to go the Husain Haqqani route (make the right political friends, say the right things, end up in the right capitals of the world)?

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Cyril: Ahmed Rashid – I’m not a reporter, so unlikely.

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Hanif – I wouldn’t know where to begin writing fiction. One of my more shameful secrets is that I know next to nothing about fiction – including his book, which I have yet to finish. He’s too decent a chap to ever ask, so I’ve lost the fear of having to admit as much to him.

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HH – bless the good ambassador (one of the lesser known things about the man is that he’s a tireless worker) but I don’t have, shall we say, his chameleon-like qualities or the ability to re-invent myself every few years.

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Ten years from now? I’ll settle for reasons to be less sceptical of this place, the direction it is headed in and the people who are trying to run it.

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More likely though? Nursing a glass of regret.

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Ahsan: Hahaha. On that entirely depressing note, let me thank you on behalf of our readers for your time. Keep writing your excellent columns and providing a clear-eyed view of our nutty country.
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Cyril’s columns come out every Friday in Dawn. His columns are conveniently archived on his website linked above.

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For those interested, I had one of these public conversations a while ago with Mosharraf Zaidi, another op-ed columnist for a major national daily. Here’s part one of that exchange and here’s part two.