How long can the military in Pakistan and Egypt remain sacrosanct?

Now that the party is winding down in Egypt, no one really wants the army to stick around for the after-party but nobody quite knows how to ask them to play ball or leave. After all, the consequences are rather scary.

Ask Hossam el-Hamalawy, a popular blogger and TV presenter who, in a recent show, suggested that any institution that is a tax beneficiary from the public is open to questioning. A seemingly reasonable request but one that saw him facing questions at a military headquarters the following day for his remarks.

Mr. Hamalawy also made allegations against the head of military police for instigating abuses and was asked by authorities to make a formal complaint, which they would follow up and take strict action against any erring party. But they wanted evidence and Mr. Hamalawy said that little has been done against scores of complaints filed against the military police.

The TV presenter isn’t alone in being hauled up by the army for comments they perceived as unacceptable. Michael Nabil, a blogger, has been sentenced to three years in pr
ison for his persistent attacks on the military; and Bothaina Kamel, a liberal and the first female presidential candidate has been charged with libel for insulting the military, according to a report in the New York Times on May 31.

The military is also pressurizing the media for "protecting its image" and limiting (read censoring?) criticism of it—and this is causing concern amongst activists who believe this will cause problems for the next civilian administration which may want greater scrutiny of the armed forces, which is not immune from charges of corruption.

The Egyptian military is finding itself in the docks for such actions as well as a damning report on May 30 in which it was revealed that it conducted forced virginity tests on female demonstrators detained in a protest on March 9. The report by Amnesty International, which quoted female detainees, has caused outrage and questioned the brutal tactics of the authorities. But the military has defended its actions as necessary.

As a Pakistani national, this is familiar territory for me. The military in Pakistan was a holy cow, an untouchable entity as far as the media went. Since the military dictator General Pervez Musharraf liberalized the media—ironically in the early 2000s—a newfound voice meant everything could be placed under the microscope except the armed forces. Laws are in place to protect questioning anything that goes against the national interest of the country, except that anything really can be defined as national interest.

There is a fine line between what can be seen as questioning and insulting the institution—at least that is how militaries in both Pakistan and Egypt seem to feel.

So journalists are frequently rounded up for explaining their remarks or other intimidation techniques are applied to scare them into "submission"—which we’re witnessing in Egypt now.

In Pakistan, the death of Osama Bin Laden opened a new chapter for the media as far as the armed forces went. Whether they knew of Bin Laden’s existence or didn’t, either case was a massive intelligence failure and the media went all out in their pursuit of uncovering ugly truths. An embarrassed but still defiant military found itself in the docks.

Why does the military view itself as the sole defender of honor and who decides at what point does criticism go from being appropriate to unacceptable? And why—when they feel their action has caused them insult—is the punishment more severe than it would be in a civil court?

Isn’t the military, in essence, accountable to the government?

Governments of both Pakistan and Egypt (once it holds its elections in September) are democratic in nature and one of the foundations of such governments is free speech—which the military says is OK if you want to slam former President Hosni Mubarak or President Asif Ali Zardari but don’t apply those rules of free speech to the armed forces, your protectors.

It’s no wonder that Pakistanis and Egyptians are standing up and rejecting these double standards. Accountability can’t be an exclusive domain, all for one and none for the armed forces.

The military receives a portion of its funding from taxpayers which means it is accountable to the public it is pledged to protect—not abuse as we have routinely seen, be it in rounding up and beating up journalists in Pakistan for questioning the military’s role in the forced disappearances of Baluchi insurgents in the southwest region of the country or for the forced testing of virginity as a measure to protect itself from future allegations of wrongdoing.

No one is buying it anymore.

No one should have to in this day and age of access of information.

Undoubtedly the consequences are frightening. Ms. Kamel was questioned for six hours for her harsh criticism of the forced virginity tests before being charged. That pales in comparison to the death of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad on May 30—tortured and shot and found in his car, allegedly for trying to expose the link between intelligence agency and Al Qaeda.

While some voices can be silenced, others refused to be—and it is usually the brave journalists that refuse to kowtow.

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