An isolated terrorist attack in Egypt, a violent uprising in Uzbekistan and riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan against the alleged desecration of the Koran all point towards the potential for instability in the region American policy makers now describe as the greater West Asia. The regimes in each of these countries are closely allied to the US. With the exception of President Hamid Karzai, who won an open and contested election in Afghanistan, none of them is ruled by an elected leader. Perhaps it is for that reason that Karzai alone had the confidence to describe the protests over the now discredited Newsweek report about the desecration of the Koran at the American prison in Guantanamo as ‘‘manifestations of a fledgling democracy.’’ The other American allies simply ducked for cover while figuring out ways to repress the sentiment of their own people.
The Egyptian authorities remain reluctant to publicly discuss the recent revival of terrorist attacks against tourists and maintain their tight lid on dissent. For a quarter of a century, the US has under-written Air Force General Hosni Mubarak’s iron-fisted governance in the name of maintaining stability in Egypt and saving that country from Islamist extremists. But the jailing of thousands of Islamists and a virtual ban on open political activity has clearly not eliminated the threat that has been used to justify personalised and repressive rule. Surely there is a lesson here if anyone is willing to learn it. Authoritarian regimes initially secure external backing on the basis of legitimate threats to stability but after some time, if they do not become more inclusive and open, they simply serve as the lid on a tinder box.
Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov is a Stalinist dictator who signed on as a US ally immediately after 9/11, offering bases to the US military for the war in Afghanistan. He also rails against Islamist extremists and, judging by the number of people he has jailed or executed, should by now have eliminated that threat to Uzbekistan’s stability. But recently protests have broken out in the Ferghana valley that have been violently put down. Karimov hopes to get away with butchering his people by accusing the protesters of being Islamist extremists.
Afghanistan is currently a work in progress. Karzai has the benefit of American military presence, which serves as the ultimate guarantee of stability for his government. But he also had the courage to contest an open election and compete for power with formidable political rivals.Karzai won the first round by securing election as president. He still faces the challenge of parliamentary elections and the potential of either an unmanageably divided legislature or one dominated by his opponents.But Karzai’s approach remains inclusive and political. When allegations of desecration of the Quran by American interrogators in Guantanamo brought people out in the streets of Afghanistan and the protests turned violent, Karzai was not easily rattled. Karzai knew the potential for Taliban and other Islamist opponents of his regime to exploit such a sensitive religious issue. His government asked the Americans, especially officers of the U.S. central Command that operate from Afghanistan, to clarify the matter. The violence during the riots was unfortunate but Afghan authorities acted wisely. They did not follow it up with a crack down on Islamic activists resembling Mubarak’s methods in Egypt or Karimov’s pattern in Uzbekistan.
Pakistan under America’s post 9/11 ally General Pervez Musharraf is not as politically repressive as Mubarak’s Egypt or Karimov’s Uzbekistan. But its stability is far from secure. Within the same week that Islamists hit Pakistan’s streets to protest the alleged desecration of the Quran, Pakistani authorities manhandled human rights activists involved in a road run aimed at making the point that men and women have the right to participate in sports events together. Musharraf’s security apparatus was dealing with Islamist protesters one day and the secular ones the next. His claim of enlightened moderation notwithstanding, it is significant to note that it was the secular protesters that got beaten up and hauled away by the police.
The sensible choice for Musharraf (and those who wish him well) would be to encourage him to become inclusive voluntarily and to reach out to Ms Bhutto, not to dictate terms but with genuine respect for her popular support. If he does not do so, I for one would not criticize her for risking instability after so much caution. After all, why should we expect her to become irrelevant like the secular opposition in Egypt and Uzbekistan?
The writer is a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Associate Professor of International Relations at Boston University