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TLP Protest and the Power of State: A Matter Revisited

Syed Sharfuddin

The past few days in the politics of Pakistan have been reminiscent of the sunset days of the PML-N era when a small but significant interest group, best classified as a non-state actor, played on the most sensitive Muslim religious issue in the country and used it to hold the government of the day on tenterhooks leaving it undecided whether to use police force to end its widespread public protest or follow the way of compromise through negotiations.

Last April, when the government was faced with the TLP protest of similar magnitude, it decided to enter into a dialogue with the protestors in the wider national interest of peace and tranquillity. The negotiations and resulting agreement signed between TLP and the government achieved the objective of ending the protest but at the cost of three big give aways: 1) acceptance that TLP is a political force which cannot be ignored or proscribed; 2) admission that the government’s hand can be forced in matters of foreign policy by mob action; and 3) acknowledgement that the ideology of TLP concerning the Prophet of Islam is the same as that of the government. This meant that: 1) the government could not prevent TLP from fielding its representatives at coming local and national elections; 2) the government could not assert its role of making foreign policy and agreed to place the TLP demand before Parliament ; and 3) that there was no ideological difference between the government and TLP on core issues, even though they differed on tactics.

TLP says it is out on the roads again in October 2021 because the government breached the signed agreement to take its demand to Parliament for a decision. The government’s position is that it submitted a resolution in Parliament on this matter, and that the demand of TLP is invalid because the French Ambassador is not in the country. Then, there are issues of TLP engaging in violence resulting in the tragic death of police officials; conflict between its demand and action which violates the teachings and Sunnah of the Prophet for tolerance and good public behaviour; breach of a written agreement by the government; and question on the government’s credibility and ability to assert its will on non-state actors with authority.

The aim of this article is not to go into the background of this repeat episode, which is already covered in the media, but explore the options for the government in dealing with such issues in the future.

There are four fundamental issues that need wider public conversation to reach a national consensus. These are, namely, the power of government and the calibre of those who govern; the role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the State; balancing legitimate state authority versus people’s democratic right to protest; and the role of government and political parties.

1) The power of government and the calibre of governors

People often ask why the writ of the government is openly flouted in Pakistan by non-state actors, including informal religious outfits and organised opposition parties? While it is correct that at every occasion, the State seems helpless, but this is not by choice. There are political coalitions or pluralistic compulsions which prevent the government from coming hard on an activity where its authority is challenged, including with armed resistance. It is not an easy task to establish a political equilibrium. While the government has the means to electronically listen into people’s personal conversations, issue search warrants for suspected persons, enter their residences and even arrest those suspected of flouting the law, the government cannot cross the established red lines because of democratic and human rights considerations, and the adverse reaction of civil society which has its sympathisers internationally. This delicate balance is also affected by how well prepared the government is in enforcing its political will and whether those tasked with the mandate to govern have the integrity and courage to implement policy into action. It cannot work if those who are vested with authority are unsure of their own positions or if there is a history of political insecurity. Sometimes, the cabinet is also not united on policy matters and the statements of two or more ministers on the same issue are contradictory or confusing. The buck in a parliamentary system for all such contradictions stops at the door of the Prime Minister who must be seen to be in-charge of his team and ahead of everyone’s game. Always in a crisis, he must be visible and lead from the front.

The PTI government may rightfully claim credit for acting wisely last April in defusing the crisis and not showing full force of the State in ending TLP protests, but it has certainly failed on consistency of policy. For example back in April it was ludicrous for the interior minister to rush to announce that his ministry had decided to approach the cabinet to ban TLP as a political party without due process but two days later the interior minister presided over a meeting with TLP leaders and reached an agreement with them to end the protests peacefully. It was also embarrassing that the Prime Minister, who is so rightly against the dishonouring of Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, and who addressed the UN General Assembly about Islamophobia, made no hard hitting statement, nor took any action last year when the French government officially supported the reprinting of the offensive cartoons by a French magazine in the name of freedom of speech. On the TLP crisis, the Prime Minister said one thing in his speech to the nation holding firm on not giving in to the key demand of TLP, but the very next day he appreciated his interior minister sitting down with TLP elders to sign an agreement accepting that in return for TLP ending the protests, the government would send their demand about the French ambassador’s return to France to Parliament for a decision. In October the interior minister again offered an olive branch to TLP to talk to government and end their protest in the interest of peace and security of the country. The mixed signals are too confusing to the public. It is hard to say, when everything is considered, where the government stands on TLP’s status.

The question of government credibility does not rest only with domestic audience. It is noted internationally. Once the international community starts to suspect that a country’s leader cannot be trusted for his word, then there is nothing left for the government machinery under that leader to convince the world that you are serious about a matter which they consider important. Pakistan has been through this storm before and we know that in the previous US governments, there were officials who did not trust Pakistan’s commitments.

Unlike the Turkish President who is unequivocal on the question of blasphemy against the Prophet, the Pakistani leadership has indirectly conveyed to France and the EU the wrong message that its had stand against the blasphemous cartoons is meant only to appease the mullas domestically. In conveying this message, the Prime Minister is not alone. He is joined by the whole caboodle of liberal politicians, many of whom, are represented in the PPP, ANP, BAP, and also to a certain extent in PML-N. Pakistani social media also shows this major ideological divide. On the one side are the liberal civil society, media and overseas Pakistanis living in the west who couldn’t care less about western far right media writing about the Prophet, or French lawmakers outlawing Islamic head-gear for French Muslim girls attending schools. On on the other side are those Pakistanis who genuinely think that raising their voice against Islamophobia is important, even though it is a bit late in the day to revisit this issue, and not helpful because Pakistan needs friends in the west to take Pakistan out of the FATF grey list, continue with their aid and trade programmes and support its Afghanistan policy for improving the uncertain security situation is the region. The TLP protest has come at the wrong time and is outdated considering that the cartoon controversy is over a year old.

The issue about the French Ambassador is something the Prime Minister’s Office or the Pakistan Foreign Office should have put to rest by acting immediately without wasting much time which gave TLP the excuse to take it up on behalf of the people of Pakistan. Last week the Turkish President threatened to expel ten western Ambassadors from Turkey on the ground that it was not their business to comment on the Turkish activist Osman Kavala who is under arrest and trial on charges of overthrowing the government in the failed 2016 coup. The reaction from Erdogan was so quick and credible that the US and some other western embassies retracted their statement the next day and Erdogan accepted their response. The matter was finished even before it could go to Turkish cabinet for approval of action. It is true that Turkish Lira tumbled in the week when all this was happening, but it was not a big cost to pay for protecting the sovereignty and credibility of the Turkish State internationally. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s leadership could not handle the problem of one foreign government and its Ambassador credibly on time. Islamabad does know very well how such things are done but it is terribly scared to risk anything, without realising that not taking action on time also costs the nation, if not the leaders personally.

The TLP demand for sending he French Ambassador home as PNG makes no diplomatic sense. As Ambassador he is only a high official of his government sent to establish secure communication between two governments. His function is not to make or change French policy but to act as a high representative of his government who acts professionally with tact and sensitivity. Sending the high representative packing to his home or downgrading diplomatic relations with a country makes sense only if an unacceptable act by a foreign envoy or a hostile act by his government requires a swift and proportional response. The host government alone can decide on such matters and no other entity, party or NGO can force the government to do so on its behalf. When signing the agreement with TLP last April, the government should not have accepted that it would table the TLP demand for the return of the French Ambassador before Parliament.

Three subjects, namely, national defence, conduct of foreign relations with sovereign states and printing currency are federal subjects and no federating unit, let alone a political party or religious group, has any authority to start dictating heir terms in these areas. The role of Pakistan Foreign Ministry is to advise the government through its envoys what is best and possible in the interest of the country. The interior minister has said that the French Ambassador is not in the country and may not return. His staying or returning is a matter only for the French government to decide. If Pakistan has any problems with the policies of the French government, it should take it up with Paris at the higher political level through diplomatic channels. The Pakistan Prime Minister has spoken to the people of Pakistan about Islam, morality and good deeds. He should also speak to the foreign diplomatic corps in Islamabad over a working lunch that if any foreign government condones or supports its ‘intellectual terrorists’ to cause anger and violence in the Muslim world through blasphemy against the Prophet and hate speech against Islam, Pakistan would consider it as an unacceptable act against its friendship and bilateral relations. The Prime Minister should also direct the Foreign Office to draw up a list of Islamophobia promoting entities and countries and move the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Conference to react reasonably and proportionately. This may include such action as issuing official protests, boycotting their products; stopping to attend conferences held in these countries, putting a freeze on their tender submissions or commercial deals, and temporarily suspending sporting activities with them.

2) Role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the state

This issue has been publicly debated at every public and official forum in the last ten years. However, what is new is that when the State has a constitution, which declares Islam as the state religion of Pakistan; when the elected leader of the country is a practicing Muslim and talks about making the country a welfare state modelled after the State of Madina; and when the state broadcaster dubs and airs for two years a Turkish TV play Dirilish Ertugrul which is half history and half fiction but it takes the entire country, as well as the Muslim Ummah all over the world by an audience-following never witnessed before, then you are obviously talking about a nation that is not prepared to ignore blasphemy against its Prophet, as well as its religious icons, and that its people expect their government to react strongly if the government of a western country where the blasphemous act has occurred wilfully to hurt or infuriate Muslims does not condemn such act or refuses to take action to stop it.

We live in a funny world. Governments and humanists who were so loud in condemning the destruction of the ancient Buddhist icons in the Bamian province of Afghanistan during the first Taliban rule in 2001 are not bothered with the insults hurled at the Prophet of Islam from their lands. Many tears have been shed over reversing the status of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul from a museum into a mosque but not a word has been said about the disappearance of ancient classical mosques in Seville, Cordova, Malta and Greece where Muslims once lived, worshipped and ruled. Most of these mosques were turned into churches. The long conflict in Syria for and against the incumbent Asad regime has resulted in the destruction of a rich historical heritage common to the adherents of three great Abrahamic faiths. No one bemoans this great loss. The far right in Europe has no problem with the whole humanity wearing face-masks to protect against the spread of Covid-19, but it has issues with innocent young Muslim girls wearing Hijab in deference to their beliefs. No one should be allowed to get away with blasphemy of the Prophet of Islam whose name, when recited in public, results in billions of hands rising to touch their hearts as a mark of deep respect for Muhammad, peace be upon him. The same rule of respect should apply to the gods and founders of all recognised religions.

Strictly speaking, TLP protests do not fall under the category of a non-state actor challenging the power of the State. Their leaders have not called the government to resign. TLP is a registered political party in Pakistan, or was so until it was shut down arbitrarily without involving the election commission or invoking a due process by the interior ministry. They still have the third largest political following in Punjab, which is Pakistan’s largest province. TLP has two elected representatives in Punjab’s provincial assembly.

This TLP protest is not new. This party has held similar protests earlier on one single issue, but the government did not take action despite promising to do so. In 2018 during their mass protest in Rawalpindi, some political parties tried to take advantage of TLP protest by demanding new elections. A lot of foul language was used in those dharnas, including verbal attacks on the State’s constitutionally protected institutions. Against the high tempers and the fluid political background of the country, the TLP episode was only a small jolt in the present uncertain situation. The PTI government which did not condemn the 2018 protest by TLP when it was in opposition then, should have known that a sleeping giant could always wake up one day to challenge its power, yet the government did nothing to remove the root cause of the problem, except join the giant in its sleep.

Pakistan’s present and past civilian governments have not fully used the available state institutions and apparatus, such as the Council of Islamic Ideology or the Ministry of Religious Affairs to bring about an understanding between the State and the religious parties (not just political parties) on issues that have caused confusion and distrust between the State and clergy. Not too long ago, a federal Minister of PTI government with no formal religious education attacked the Moonsighting Committee for being out of times for physically sighting the Ramadan and Eid moons. His seemingly well-meaning but controversial actions caused more harm than good in promoting goodwill between Muslim secularists and orthodox Muslims. It is not just this government that has been casual about religious sensitivity. The last government also did not realise that an important Annex was removed from the Election Amendment Act 2018 which resulted in a nationwide protest over certification of the finality of prophethood. Another past government had ministers in the cabinet who did not want official Qaris at the opening of parliamentary committee meetings , yet they themselves could not recite Quranic verses from Surah Al-Akhlas correctly on microphone.

The issues where the government needs to work hard include inclusive reform of the madrassas and their state financing, incorporating Imams and Muezzins in its state employee structure, and drawing TORs for their recruitment, employment and retirement and delivering a pre-approved single Friday sermon all over the country under the authority of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This will be possible only if the clergy sees these government institutions as sincere and qualified for promoting Islam and finding common ground, and which are run by officials who are not corrupt and who could be trusted with the religious knowledge and services they provide. The government also needs to address issues around application of blasphemy laws in relation to cases brought against poor and uneducated minority citizens; protecting and checking the status of principal witnesses who are called to testify and the way FIRs are drafted and filed by police; challenging the insistence of Ahmadis to defy the 14th amendment and their boycott of electoral rolls, which result in distrust against their community; and the more recent question of blasphemy of the Prophet by foreign-based provocateurs who clearly have an agenda to foment hatred and violence in the Muslim communities and countries, and who are officially protected by their governments for carrying out such racist and divisive acts.

3) Balancing legitimate state authority versus democratic right to protest

Organising protests is an essential feature of democracy and defines the political space in which the government and opposition parties operate. In a representative democracy, protests are not the right of political parties alone. Any interest group or gathering of citizens has the right to start or join a public protest in a democracy. In western countries protests are staged against the policies of the government on issues the protestors do not agree with. Sometimes their demands are ignored and at other times these are accepted fully or partially and result in change of policy. A protest is organised to register a dissenting point with the government, but it is not meant to force the government to accept it fully and immediately. A normal political protest is different from a popular revolution. Protests can happen many times in a year; a revolution happens only once in many years. Unfortunately, in countries where democracy is nascent or has repeatedly suffered from military or authoritarian rule, protests have not evolved into an established form of political expression. The Arab Spring protests resulted in premature revolutions in countries which were not prepared for post-revolution governance, resulting in great loss of life, instability of state, and devastating impact on the economic well-being of their people. Last year Sudan went down this slippery road. Today it is under a second military takeover. In fact, there are more examples in Africa to quote but I do not want to digress from the topic at hand.

In Pakistan, protests do not take place to convey a message of dissent to government. They sound more like a clarion call for a people’s revolution that thunders loud but never happens. The protesting side believes that the government has to bow down to its demands or else go home. The long history of political protests in Pakistan shows that these have been used to bring down a weak government through violence or by creating unstable conditions, which enable the military to intervene in the name of restoring peace and stability. This is how Ayub Khan’s rule was ended in 1969; and how the lawyers’ movement forced General Musharraf to convene multi-party elections in 2008. Since then, a good understanding has been reached between political parties that a regime change through public protests is not the best thing for democracy. However, they have yet to develop the understanding that the place to protest and make political noise is Parliament and not the back-end of someone’s else’s protest on the street or conversations on social media or debates on the country’s private TV channels.

Last April it was to the government’s credit that it showed flexibility and agreed to listen to the demands of TLP to end their protest in the long hot days of Ramadan. Although the interior minister’s U turn so soon after a threatened administrative action against the party was a surprise for the country, it was in retrospect a good thing in clearing the position of TLP as a party which has no hand in terrorist activities. The Sarina Hotel bombing in Quetta on 21 March, only a day after the successful talks between the government and TLP, is evidence of how foreign enemy planned to exploit the TLP protest to destabilise Pakistan and achieve multiple aims. Planning and executing a terrorist act from overseas using local sleepers does not happen quickly, and that’s why the enemy failed to anticipate how quickly the TLP protest would end. The enemy could not fast track the planning for its proxy terrorist act. Another lesson for the government is that if public protests on religious questions are allowed to continue without taking urgent and reconciliatory prudent action, Pakistan’s enemies will try to take advantage of it and make the situation worse.

4) Role of government and political parties

There are justifiable questions on the performance of government for not finding a permanent solution to the irritating religious issues resurfacing frequently despite its best intention to make Pakistan a moderate Islamic state. However, the silence of other political parties, as well as role of other religious parties during the peak of the TLP crisis is most unfortunate and unacceptable. As the country’s opposition they have a responsibility to set aside politics when it comes to issues like Kashmir, Palestine, Afghanistan, Islamophobia, attacks on the honour and character of the Prophet, and the defence of Pakistan. The opposition and other religious parties have often failed to meet this expectation leaving the government and TLP to sort this out between them. It is most unfortunate that some security personnel have lost their lives and public property is torched and in retaliation many protestors have been arrested for disturbing peace. This circus must come to an end with prudent policies that are not just aimed at shutting up the mulla but should go deeper than blaming only one side and addressing inefficiency and inertia within the government and concerned agencies on tackling sensitive issues.

5. What’s Next

The government must learn to make contingency plans on matters of utmost importance to the country where public sentiment cannot be ignored. It must learn how to create space for public protests and draw up a modus operandi for their organisation and acknowledgement and ensure that it will deal with them not by force but through flexible yet firm hand. On the question of protecting Islamic icons, values and traditions, there will always be a difference between the orthodox and liberal Pakistanis. This difference must be respected and nurtured as part of Pakistan’s rich ethnic and cultural diversity. However, if the country’s constitution envisages Pakistan to be an Islamic State and be guided by the holy Quran and Sunnah in its affairs, then the State should use its mandate, resources and institutions to bring about a new ‘entente cordiale’ between the clergy and the State to work for the common objective together, and not as mutually exclusive forces. The alternative is to follow the example of Bangladesh and change the constitution declaring that religion is a private affair of Pakistanis and nothing to do with the State. However, a referendum, not a constitutional amendment, will decide it, should God forbid, things go out of control that far.

Rewriting a new Afghan Constitution: A Briefing Paper

Syed Sharfuddin

The G7 countries met virtually on 24 August under the chairmanship of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and demanded that Taliban must extend the deadline for foreign troops to leave Afghanistan beyond August to complete evacuation of all US and NATO troops, as well as stranded foreign nationals in Kabul and those Afghans who do not wish to live under a Taliban rule. The G7 statement also repeated the call of the UN Security Council (UNSC) made at its meeting on 16 August for Taliban to observe human rights and prevent terrorist acts against third countries. The only difference was that while the UNSC statement did not mention Taliban by name, the G7 did so as an indication that there is now an acknowledgement that the next government in Kabul will be formed by Taliban and they will be making the future decisions in Afghanistan. President Joe Biden, however, did not agree to the G7 demand. He insisted that the US was on course to complete the ongoing evacuation operation by 31 August. He also said that extending the deadline in the absence of an agreement with Taliban, which was not expected, will endanger the security of the US and other foreign troops remaining in Afghanistan after the August deadline.

Regrettably, the G7 call carries the potential of conveying a confusing message to the Afghans who are afraid of atrocities and human rights violations in a future Taliban government. After the airport is cleared and those Afghans whose papers are complete fly out of Kabul, thousands more will be getting ready to leave Afghanistan by air, land or long walk in the next few months to claim asylum in the countries which contributed troops to ISAF in the past. But their expectations would remain a pipe dream against the hard reality of international dynamics. The West had not foreseen such a large emigration of Afghans coming so soon, and neither is the public in the US, EU, UK, Australia and Canada ready to welcome new waves of refugees from Afghanistan. If this happens, thousands of Afghans will be disappointed and become marginalised in their own country because of the false hopes being built by civil society and media.

Ideally, the US and NATO should extract guarantees from the Taliban for giving the Afghan people full civil and political liberties and respecting their human rights in return for a Taliban government’s recognition by the UN and international institutions, including access to the much sought after trade and financial institutions such as the WTO, IMF and the World Bank. Afghanistan is a richly endowed but GDP wise a poor nation, but it is a member or partner of over fifty  intergovernmental, regional and international organisations. This may look like a huge burden for a small country to be representing itself in this high number of organisations, sometimes duplicating and at other times working at cross purposes, but it is also a huge reservoir for starting constructive engagement and promoting global good practice with the Taliban. It will be a waste not to use this great network of knowledge and resource for the rebuilding of a new, peaceful, just and rules-based Afghanistan owned and run by Afghans themselves. By not agreeing to the demand of his European allies in the G7 to extend the 31 August deadline, President Biden seems to be in favour of not pushing Taliban too much in a corner to force them to take unwanted extreme measures which would only add to the instability of Afghanistan in an already volatile strategic region which remains an active theatre of great power rivalry close to Iran, China and Russia.

On their part, the Taliban should not prevent any Afghan who has valid documents to travel to another country freely and without intimidation. The life and property of those Afghans who do not agree or welcome Taliban should be fully protected, and their rights should be recognised and granted by the new rulers. The Taliban have an opportunity to clear their image as barbarians and human rights violators. If any doors are to be knocked in Kabul by their fighters, they should be knocking these doors to offer scared people food and transport to the airport, should they have the right travel documents. As custodians of a new Islamic government in Afghanistan, the Taliban should follow the example of prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, when he entered Makkah ten years after Hijrah. They should force no one to stay in Afghanistan against his/her will. This will be their first major test the world will be watching closely.  

What has happened in Afghanistan in August 2021 is not less than a revolution. Afghans have paid dearly until this moment whether they supported Taliban or fought against them. Their capture of Afghanistan was not a peaceful and constitutional transfer of power from one party to another. A Taliban-led government cannot automatically expect to be recognised by the UN and other countries. Taliban also cannot, as a matter of routine, lay claim to Afghan overseas assets and development funds committed to the former government of Afghanistan by international financial institutions. They will need to work their way to earn it back. They will need to show with their actions in the next few months and years that they are capable of running a responsible and law abiding government.

But the revolution also gives Taliban advantages. They are not obliged to follow the commitments the previous government made to its international partners, or continue with the projects the previous government signed with foreign investors and countries. They are free to renegotiate investment agreements with overseas private investors, institutions and governments. They can launch an inquiry into corruption and kickbacks on commercial deals made by the leaders of the previous government. They are also free to impose limits on the number of foreign diplomats a country can send to its embassy in Afghanistan or open consulates or trade offices in their country. They can sign new treaties of friendship and cooperation with their neighbouring countries or request technical assistance from third countries if faced by brain drain in the short term. They do not have to give a blanket approval for accepting the UN and international covenants without adding any reservations on clauses which contradict their Islamic ideology. They do not have to stop narcotics production or sell arms they have acquired in the war booty to third parties in order to pay their officials salaries. They do not have to give any guarantees that they will not use unconventional methods to defend Afghan territory if it is attacked from outside. All these instruments are now open to Taliban for fresh negotiations with international organisations and third countries. Everything is on the table for negotiation on both sides.

The Taliban have postponed the announcement of their government structure until after the withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. This has more to do with their own internal issues than international troops withdrawal. It is hard for them to reach power sharing arrangements within their ranks on forming an inclusive government with Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek leaders, women and tribal elders. It will be even harder for them to make compromises on implementing their Islamic ideology and its acceptance by the people of Afghanistan. They will also need to make compromises when political expediency, pluralism and diversity require them to go slow, when they are writing the new laws and regulations.

The Taliban have indicated that they will keep the 2004 constitution of Afghanistan but change it to incorporate their vision of an Islamic Emirate. The 2004 Constitution is a document which was adopted without wider consultations among Afghans. It was drafted with the help of Afghanistan’s external partners. As a primary legal document of the country, it must be Afghan written and Afghan owned. The Taliban were not part of the of the constitution writing process. It was drafted in a hurry in December 2003 and approved and ratified within one month in January 2004.

Even from the perspective of a modern democratic constitution, the 2004 constitution lacks many important features. It provides for an independent election commission (article 86) but it is silent about the appointment, terms of reference and statutory funding of the chief election commission and other members of the commission. The 2004 constitution provides for the establishment of an independent human rights commission (article 58), a central bank (article 12) and an attorney general (article 64.11), but it does not provide for the establishment of an independent public services commission (article 50), an armed forces commission, a truth and reconciliation commission, an inter-provincial disputes resolution council, an auditor general and an independent police commission. Afghanistan needs these institutions backed by the constitution in order to overcome its special vulnerabilities through its internal political processes.

With regard to the Islamic character of the constitution, it is clear that an attempt was made by the framers of the constitution in 2003 to give it an Islamic baptism without much thought. For example, article 4 of the constitution states that “national sovereignty in Afghanistan shall belong to the nation, manifested directly and through its elected representatives.” In the Islamic system of governance, sovereignty belongs to Almighty Allah and is exercised by the people on earth as his representatives, who in turn mandate their leaders to govern them in their land according to the teachings of Quran and the sunnah of prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him. However, the people retain the power to change their leaders if they do not follow Allah’s commands in the function of governance, especially in administering justice, ensuring peace and providing livelihood and sustenance. This concept is missing in the constitution. In another example, article 64.11 mentions, among others, the appointment of the head of the Red Cross. It could be a typo but it reveals the written source. In Islamic countries, including Afghanistan it is known as Red Crescent.

In the Afghan constitution, the idea of presidential form of government is derived from the US system. However, the safeguards provided in the US constitution to prevent a situation where individual electors might be inclined to choose a leader from their own tribal and political circle, creating the danger of a crippling post-election deadlock are not provided in the Afghanistan constitution. Afghanistan is a deeply divided state with as many as 14 recognised ethnic nationalities. It is also divided along linguistic and sectarian lines. These safeguards are necessary to give confidence to ethnic and religious minorities that they will not be swept by the tyranny of majority in the name of democracy. Under article 6, the presidential candidate is not obliged to provide the names of two vice presidential running mates on the panel from another ethnic group or region. There is also no provision to break a tie if the two vice presidential candidates receive the same number of votes as happened in the US elections in the year 1800 resulting in a political crisis and leading to 12th amendment.

The 2004 constitution mentions ‘national treason’ twice in articles 69 and 78 but it does not define what constitutes national treason and what should be the sentence for a person who commits this crime and is convicted by the courts.

In articles 3 and 35, the constitution says that no law shall be enacted that contravenes the “tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam” and that “manifestos and charter of political parties shall” also abide by this restriction. However, in article 34 relating to the right of expression, no restriction is placed on individuals to respect the religion of Islam and refrain from expression of “thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations, as well as other means” that attack the beliefs, principles and values of Islam, as enshrined in the Quran and sunnah, including attacks on the Quran, the personality of prophet Mohammad and members of his noble household, and his companions.

Articles 7 and 8 relating to multilateral and bilateral relations of Afghanistan should be amended to state that “the the guiding principles of Afghanistan’s foreign relations will be: promoting regional and global peace and cooperation, respecting the territorial integrity of other states, pursuing friendly relations with Islamic and other countries, applying the UN principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and actively pursuing mutually beneficial economic and trade relations with Afghanistan’s regional and external partners.

Afghanistan has been through wars for most of its history. Defence of the fatherland is a quintessential part of the Afghan national character. However, the document is silent about the composition and mandate of the armed forces of Afghanistan and the appointment of the chiefs of the army and air-force. The constitution also does not mention that the military commanders will be subservient to civilian authorities and overthrow of a civilian elected government by the military overtly or covertly will amount to national treason and invoke capital punishment for those involved in treason. Only under the powers of the president, article 64.3 states that the chief executive of the country is the commander in chief of the armed forces.

The 2004 constitution incorporates the concept of social welfare by making the state responsible for providing free of charge education up to college level (article 43), free healthcare and medical facilities (article 52) and financial support to families of martyrs and handicapped persons (article 53). However, the constitution does not state anywhere that the country will follow the principles of social welfare economy. Instead, the constitution declares in article 10 that the state shall protect and encourage market economy. The article should be amended to say that “the guiding principles of Afghanistan’s economy will be Islamic social welfare system and a privately-owned but state-guided free trade and individual enterprise that supports investment, services, equality of opportunity for all citizens, and fair division and circulation of national wealth.”

The 2004 constitution is silent about the territory that comprises the state of Afghanistan. Articles 1 and 21 should be amended to read: “the territory of a sovereign, independent and unitary Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan shall comprise 34 provinces (wilayaat) each of which will be an integral part of the indivisible Afghan state. The capital of Afghanistan shall be Kabul.”

The articles relating to the judiciary should be sufficiently amended to incorporate in the country’s criminal justice system the traditional Afghan system of dispensing justice by involving the local jury and fast tracking the process to avoid delays in the judicial process. This system has been practiced by Taliban in the areas under their control and was popular with the people.

The texts of the oaths of the President, ministers and higher judiciary in articles 63, 74 and 119 should be removed from the main body and placed as annex to the constitution.

Given that Taliban will need to satisfy many smaller minority groups and ethnic populations about the decisions they make in the new government, there is a need to expand the composition of the House of Elders (Mashrono Jirga) hundred percent from the present 102 to 204. Of these, 102 members should come through the procedure stated in article 84 of the 2004 constitution but the other 102 members should consist of the tribal leaders and religious elders representing the ethnic and regional breadth of Afghanistan, as well as gender representation, irrespective of whether they supported the Taliban or the previous governments. These representatives should be elected by the local Jirgas of people from their respective tribes and regions for a fixed but renewable term.

If Taliban use the present constitution as the basis of forming a new government, President Ashraf Ghani’s escape from Kabul together with his entire team of two vice presidents, foreign minister and other ministers, makes it impossible to implement articles 67 and 68, as well as 69 to appoint a new chief executive and his team through fresh elections. The Taliban can also ignore the procedure of forming a new government in the 2004 constitution but still announce new elections within 3 to 6 months. However, holding elections  before a new constitution is agreed and adopted would be a meaningless exercise and could weaken their hold on power.

For amending the existing 2004 constitution, Taliban can use the procedure provided under article 150 of the 2004 constitution. They can use the present independent commission (article 157) or appoint a new independent commission to amend the 2004 constitution. Alternately, they can dismiss the previous Loya Jirga and start the process of drafting the constitution from the scratch. However, they should not throw away the work that has been done so far and has the agreement of many parties and groups, if not them. They should therefore announce a new interim and inclusive administration with a view to drafting, as a first step, a new constitution in a period of 12 to 18 months, using the 2004 constitution as the basis of their new draft. In the next stage, the new draft constitution can then be presented for a national debate. The government can then convene a Special Loya Jirga, constituted only for the purpose of discussing and approving the new constitution. This should be followed by an announcement for a free, inclusive and multi-party election in Afghanistan, observed by local and international observers, hopefully in 2024 or earlier, if possible.

*The author Syed Sharfuddin is a regular contributor to the Weekender. He is a former Pakistan diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, UK (2000-2006). He is also a former ex-officio board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission, UK Chapter.

Afghanistan: Collapse of a Government or a Grand Strategy

Syed Sharfuddin

Executive Summary

This essays argues that the major reason for the fall of Afghanistan was Taliban fighters’ surprisingly quick move into Afghan provinces and the capital Kabul in August 2021 in a matter of weeks rather than months. It cannot be doubted that the Taliban had prepared for this move in advance, making deals with local Afghan leaders where possible, and using violence or twisting arms where required. Their organised and speedy advance was not foreseen by the intelligence community, nor by diplomats who were assisting the US and UN-led peace process in Doha, New York and other cities for a political settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan.

The unexpected refusal of the former Afghan government to confront Taliban militarily added to the failure of expectations for holding the ground and preventing a total collapse of the government and its institutions. Had a civil war ensued, which seemed imminent, it would have been bloody, dirty and prolonged. It would have threatened the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and gone deep in the country along regional, ethnic and sectarian lines. It would have inevitably forced the UN Security Council (UNSC) to mandate the creation of a UN Peace Keeping Force in Afghanistan replacing US and NATO troops with UN peacekeepers.

The seeds for such a scenario were sowed in the Doha peace talks, which began cautiously in 2018 between the US and Taliban. The talks did not initially include a road map for a political settlement of Afghanistan but focused only on Taliban ceasefire and phased US troops’ reduction and withdrawal. The former government of Afghanistan was not part of the Doha peace process from the very start of the talks except when the exchange or release of Taliban prisoners was discussed between the US and Taliban. It was only after February 2020 when a peace deal had been reached between the US and Taliban that the US and UN started talking about the political future of Afghanistan following the US troops’ withdrawal. By then, it was too late for the former government to extract any concessions from Taliban. On their part, the Taliban regarded the former government of Afghanistan as a puppet administration imposed by force from abroad whose days were numbered with the dates of the US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Despite the surprise takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban and an expected new and peaceful beginning announced by them, the country remains exposed to armed conflict and proxy wars in a post US/NATO troops free Afghanistan, reinforced by the geopolitical location of the country in the arena of great power rivalry for political influence and global trade routes. They have been tied in so many knots of international conditionalities that their goose appears to be dressed up for an easy meal. But no one could guess that the Taliban would be back after 20 years. They could still surprise everyone despite the odds being against them at the national and international level.

Introduction

Everyone from military analysts to political leaders, war veterans, intelligence community, Afghans, Indians, Americans and Europeans is asking one question: “Why were Taliban able to retake Afghanistan so easily and quickly when in the assessment of Afghanistan’s friends and supporters, the former government of Mr Ashraf Ghani was well armed and claimed to be under control of the situation?”

After the collapse of the former Afghan government on 15 August 2021 with dramatic scenes of Taliban fighters taking photos in an empty presidential palace in Kabul and saying they were waiting to hear from their leadership what was the next task for them, President Biden said in a televised address to the Americans that evening that he stood by his decision to pull out US troops from Afghanistan by September 2021. But he also blamed the former Afghan government for surrendering to the Taliban and refusing to fight against them, despite the superior firepower and aircover of the Afghan armed forces which the US had ensured after spending $82 billion in creating, funding and training the Afghan military in the last twenty years.

The Big Conversation

Western analysists are trying to find answers to the question what went so wrong in Afghanistan that an investment of over 2 trillion dollars, spent over the last 2 decades did not produce any results when it came to defending the country against a tribally based and loosely organised group of hard core militants not backed by any country in the world. A number of reasons are being advanced. These include the US decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and its bad timing, backing the wrong horse in the race, failure of military intelligence, the rising influence of Taliban in those areas of Afghanistan where the writ of the former government was missing, rampant corruption of Afghan leadership at the centre and the provinces, a bad criminal justice system and poor governance, and fatigue on the part of the Afghan people to carryon fighting after the US troops left the country without giving an agreed political roadmap for the future of Afghanistan

A Fall Guy

There have been accusations against Pakistan from some retired Western diplomats, resident news reporters and NGO personnel, who served in Kabul, that Pakistani agencies created, armed and trained Taliban. But if the US, NATO and the UN could not find any evidence to support those allegations, revisiting these now is no more than a hogwash and amounts to passing the blame of failure to a weaker ally. These diplomats forget that working in a foreign country with the host government 24/7 for a couple of years creates sympathy for the host government of the day and they no longer remain impartial and neutral. This condition is known as “localitis’ in the Foreign Ministries of many countries. To mitigate this, governments keep rotating their diplomats and expatriates on their posts. Pakistan was and remains a partner of the US and NATO on the war against terror but like the US which changed its policy last year about not sending troops to fight in foreign conflicts, Pakistan has also taken a decision that it will not be involved in other countries’ wars in the future. 

Doha Talks

The seeds of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban were sown in the Doha negotiations which started cautiously in the capital of Qatar in 2018 and gained momentum in the spring of 2019. The negotiations were long and protracted and had no timeline. Eventually the US and Taliban reached an agreement in February 2020. In November 2020 at the end of his first term, President Trump announced a reduction in active US military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. After Trump, President Biden followed on his predecessor’s policy of cutting down US involvement in foreign conflicts and decided that US troops will leave Afghanistan by May 2021. He later extended this date to September 2021. The February 2020 peace agreement agreed at Doha did not include the political future of Afghanistan after US troops’ withdrawal. The US assumed that the former government in Kabul will remain in-charge of Afghanistan and defend itself against the Taliban, who are already subject to sanctions’ measures under the 1988 UN sanctions regime, which is implemented through the 2011 UN Security Council (UNSC) Sanctions Committee . Taliban are still regarded as a threat to peace, stability and security of Afghanistan in the UN documents. In many capitals of the world, they are seen as a threat to human rights, liberty, peace and security of the world.

The Cost of Withdrawal

The exclusion of the former Afghan government from the Doha agreement of February 2020 meant that whatever the Taliban offered to the US in their peace deal was limited between them and the US, and did not apply to the former government of Afghanistan except when exchange of prisoners was involved. An intra Afghan dialogue commenced in September 2020 to reach a political settlement of the conflict but it was too late to extract any concessions from Taliban who were aware that the US would not be militarily supporting the puppet government in Kabul indefinitely. President Ghani on his part insisted that Taliban announce a ceasefire and agree to his government’s terms for a peace deal. Could this be a neglect on the part of the US not to include the political settlement of Afghanistan in the February 2020 peace deal is hard to say. But the historical record of foreign troops’ withdrawal from conflict countries is poor in supporting the claim that the departing powers care about resolving ongoing disputes politically and peacefully after them. Take for instance the recent examples of Somalia and Iraq. Going further back in time, the departure of the British from the Indian subcontinent in 1947 shows a similar pattern. There was no agreement on the boundary in Punjab or the status of Muslim majority princely states in the dominion. The partition itself was bloody and painful because no thought was given to peacefully manage the mass migration of Hindus and Muslims between the two newly independent countries. In Afghanistan two major mistakes were made: 1) absence of the former Afghan government in the Doha peace talks from the beginning, and 2) absence of a timely agreement on the political roadmap of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops from the country.

Flawed Assessment

The US assessment that the former Afghan government was capable of defending itself against the Taliban was wrong, even though Taliban had gained more firepower in the last few years and had captured many remote regions of Afghanistan. The US and NATO miscalculated that the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan would result in reduction of Taliban’s attacks and dampen their appeal to the people of Afghanistan as freedom fighters against foreign troops. But it was obvious that their fight was not against foreign troops only. They were after political power which was snatched away from them by force in November 2001.

The US was also wrong in concluding that if Taliban continued their attacks against the former government, it would mount a credible defence for at least between three to six  months. During this period, the US and NATO countries among the P5 could move a resolution at the UNSC to establish a peacekeeping force for Afghanistan. A friendly India at the UNSC would be too happy to support the passage of such a resolution by the Council on grounds of responsibility to protect. The US and its NATO allies would have also agreed to provide supplementary funding for the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Afghanistan and a contingent comprising military and intelligence officers from many troops-contributing countries including from India and other non-Western countries would be effectively based in Afghanistan to stop the Taliban advance and overthrow of the former government by force. In August, a panel of experts set up by the UN Human Rights Council had suggested to the UNSC to consider invoking Chapter VII for Afghanistan. It allows the Council to respond to threats of peace, or acts of aggression by authorising military and non-military action. Decisions taken by the UNSC under Chapter VII are mandatory.

As an added option, the former government, in the event of a civil war and attacks on civilians, could request a Muslim country such as the UAE, Morocco or Turkey to provide troops to defend Kabul, Kandahar, Heart, Badakhshan and Mazar Sharif against Taliban attacks. Under international law asking a foreign government to send troops to supplement a country’s defence force against militants would be deemed legitimate which would push Taliban deeper in the quagmire of war crimes. But their quick takeover of Afghanistan before the end of August pre-empted all these options.

Changing Deadlines

One of the reasons for their quick movement was the uncertainty of US troops’ withdrawal date. President Trump lost the election in November leaving in limbo the claim that the US would reduce its troops’ presence in conflict countries. President Biden decided to follow through the announcement of his predecessor but in April 2021 he changed the May 1 deadline negotiated with the Taliban to 11 September 2021 to coincide with the anniversary of the Nine Eleven incident. The Taliban were not consulted about the extension and were unsure about September, lest the Biden Administration change this deadline again. The Taliban were also unsure about the outcome of negotiations at the Doha talks which resumed in 2021 involving the former Afghan government for a political settlement. Formation of an interim government of national unity which would include Taliban representation and calling new elections were not on the agenda of these talks. Meanwhile the agreements Taliban had made with individual provincial governors and army commanders individually to cooperate with them were drying on the vine. They had little option expect to move fast to achieve their military objectives in the summer.

Multilateral Diplomacy

While the actual situation on the ground in the years prior to Taliban takeover was mainly dictated by what happened in the military theatre, there was no shortage of diplomatic activity to seek peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. But these efforts were focused on strengthening the government in Kabul and asking Taliban to reduce violence and agree to a ceasefire, respect human rights, especially rights of women and minorities and not allow the areas under their control to be used for terrorist attacks against the US and its allies. In these negotiations, Taliban were no one’s favourite and suffered from their image as a backward and unorganised militant group.

The UN Secretary General (UNSG) periodically appointed Special Representatives (SR) to Afghanistan. The current SR is Deborah Lyons of Canada. She briefs the UNSC periodically on the situation in Afghanistan. She is also a member of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The Mission was established in 2002 on the request of the Afghan government. Its mandate has been subsequently extended by the UNSC periodically to support the Afghan government, assist peace and reconciliation efforts and monitor human rights and protect civilians. This year in March, the UNSG additionally appointed Mr Jean Arnault of France as his new Personal Envoy on Afghanistan and the regional issues. The UN officials have worked closely with the diplomats and special representatives of the US and other NATO countries  to support the presence and mandate of foreign troops in Afghanistan. The UNSC also implements the 1988 Sanctions Committee mandate in proscribing and delisting members of Taliban by the US and other governments.

Security Council’s Engagement

In the wake of the fast deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan in August, the UNSC met on 6 August for a closed briefing and consultations on Afghanistan. Under rule 37 of the Council’s Rules of Procedure, it invited the Permanent Representative (PR) of the former Afghanistan government to the UNSC to brief members. But India blocked an invitation to the PR of Pakistan to brief the Council on Pakistan’s consultations with the Afghan government and Taliban for promoting peace and security in Afghanistan. The UNSC did not issue a statement at the end of its meeting.

The Council met again on 16 August 2021 under the Presidency of India and issued a statement reiterating its earlier demands made to the Taliban. It took cognizance of the change on the ground after 15 August 2021 but did not mention Taliban. In a clear indication that recognition of the de-facto situation in Afghanistan was a long way away, the Taliban were referred to in the UNSC statement as “all parties”.  

The UNSC statement copied the demands made by the US administration from the Taliban. These were earlier reiterated by the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad who attended the resumed Doha talks on 12 August. These talks, however, collapsed due to the non-arrival of the Afghan High Council Representative at Doha on 15 August 2021. In that meeting Taliban were expected to agree to commit themselves to observe a comprehensive ceasefire, refrain from use of force, respect human rights, including rights of women and minorities, denounce terrorism and engage in an inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process for a political settlement to maintain the status quo in Afghanistan.

The fact that this meeting did not take place and an agreement was not reached with the Taliban is the biggest failure of multilateral diplomacy on Afghanistan.

Taliban’s Military Strategy

The multiple layers of US and NATO military strategy supplemented by bilateral and UN diplomatic efforts to keep the Taliban under a straightjacket were timed out by the speed of Taliban’s move to different provincial capitals from end July to mid-August 2021 starting from the periphery and ending with the encirclement of Kabul on 14 and 15 August. On their part, the Taliban ensured that their peace agreement with the US concluded at Doha in 2020 was not violated. Technically, their agreement with the US had ended in May 2001 but they went along with the US extension in the withdrawal date without giving any commitments. They did not have any peace agreement with the former government to honour.

Having been left out of the Doha talks until November last year, and recovering from the shock that it will be all alone to fend for itself after the US and NATO troops had left Afghanistan by the end of the month, the former government in Kabul came under great pressure. Moreover, despite its bold claims to defend itself, its unpopularity with the Afghan government troops who had been underpaid, under fed and unmotivated did not help mount a defence of any sorts, let alone put up a good fight supported by air cover which the Taliban lacked. The Taliban capitalised on this weakness effectively. President Ashraf Ghani was not alone in his decision to leave the country. He had received credible reports that any armed resistance against the Taliban fighting machine would collapse like a pack of cards, leaving him and his close associates at the mercy of Taliban as war captives.

It is important to mention that Taliban had done elaborated planning before they moved to capture Afghanistan’s provincial capitals. They expanded their control in the rural areas by  exerting pressure through threats and offering social services where the government had completely failed to run basic services for the people. By July 2021, they were already in control of half of Afghanistan. They made deals with the provincial governors for surrender in return for money and other inducements, perhaps including a general amnesty or a role for them under a Taliban government. The Taliban started from the North where they expected the hardest resistance and moved to the South. They also started from the periphery cutting out supply routes before coming to the urban cities. They capitalised on the demoralised Afghan army and coerced their family members to ask them to sell them weapons and not take up arms against Taliban fighters. The Taliban fought a perfect guerrilla battle of modern times.

At the same time, the Taliban kept their political representation in the Doha talks, showing willingness to talk to the representatives of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation even when their fighters were entering the palace of the former President who had fled the country on 15 August with the message that he did not want to cause any bloodshed by fighting the Taliban. The Chairman of the Afghan High Council Mr Abdulla Abdulla never reached Doha on 15 August 2021 to achieve what he had discussed with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ten days before: “to accelerate peace negotiations and achieve a political settlement that is inclusive, respects the rights of all Afghans, including women and children, allows the Afghan people to have a say in choosing their leaders and prevents Afghan soil from being used to threaten the US and its allies and partners.” It was too late in the day by a losing side to offer Taliban a power sharing arrangement and then not show up when they were ready to talk peace with the former government in Doha on the day Kabul fell to their fighters without any armed resistance.

Political Minefields

Taliban’s political strategy is at present unknown. Perhaps the capture of Afghanistan came too soon for them. They are now trying to agree among themselves and with their allied partners a political arrangement for the future governance of the country reflecting their Islamic ethos and also meeting the expectations of the international community to be recognised as a legitimate, responsible and representative government. Afghanistan is a country with rich tribal, ethnic, sectarian and political diversity. If Taliban do not play their cards with political wisdom and inclusive governance, they could meet resistance from places such as Panjsher Valley where the First Vice President of the former government, Amrullah Saleh, former Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, and Ahmad Massoud can become a problem for them in the future. The 300,000 Afghan army which melted away in the air still harbours hard core anti-Taliban commanders who can be organised by a disgruntled political group and used against the Taliban. Former President Hamid Karzai and Head of the still uncertain National Reconciliation Council, Abdulla Abdulla, are also potential threats to a Taliban government if they do not respect the political rights of minorities and repeat the mistakes of the earlier 2001 first Taliban government which made them unpopular in Afghanistan, as well as in the comity of the world. These potential pitfalls can be exploited by foreign powers who may want to settle scores with the Taliban for causing them humiliation and create small pockets of armed resistance witch overtime could become hotbeds of proxy wars, once again pushing Afghanistan into instability and conflict.

Conclusion

Capturing Afghanistan from the former government without a major battle was the easier part for the Taliban. Keeping Afghanistan united and peaceful and securing recognition from the international community to play their part as a government that respects international conventions and agreements and promotes democracy, peace and human rights is a much harder task the Taliban now face as they form the next government of Afghanistan. They also have a long road ahead clearing the political minefields inside the country and the institutional hurdles Western powers and multilateral institutions will place on their way. The country’s rich mineral wealth and sensitive geo-strategic location may also cause Afghanistan to remain unstable and in conflict for a long time before it can see the dawn of peace which has evaded the Afghan people for over half a century. But then, no one could guess that the Taliban would be back after 20 years. They could still surprise everyone despite the odds being against them at the national and international level.

*The author Syed Sharfuddin is a regular contributor to the Weekender. He is a former Pakistan diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, UK (2000-2006). He is also a former ex-officio board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission, UK Chapter

Why Israel Lost this Round in the Arab Israeli Conflict

Syed Sharfuddin*

The present conflict in the Middle East involving the Zionist State of Israel on the one side and the Palestine Administration of Mahmud Abbas and Hamas on the other side, is about to end with a UN approved ceasefire, with the Palestinians emerging as deeply wounded but victorious in this round. The responsibility for losing this round of hostilities short of a full scale war, despite Israel’s superiority in weaponry and its staunch support by the Biden Administration, rests solely with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is only an interim head of government in Israel, and is under investigation on corruption charges.

In March this year, Mr Netanyahu wrongly calculated his moves to quell local protests over forced evacuations in East Jerusalem carried out by Israeli authorities to continue with new Jewish settlements replacing indigenous Palestinian homes in the disputed Al Quds area. His government’s heavy-handed response brought more protests all over the occupied territories, including Gaza. With the entry of Hamas in the conflict to back the helpless Palestinians, Netanyahu ruthlessly sacrificed civilian Palestinian lives like Paschal lambs to increase his political ratings in Israel. He probably did not realise, despite Biden Administration’s unconditional support for Israel, that his government’s illegal actions in Sheikh Jarrah, storming of the holy Al-Aqsa mosque in Ramadan, and IDF’s continued rocket bombings of Gaza in a completely disproportionate and indiscriminate manner would create such a strong global reaction, including serious concern from Israel’s European friends. The international outcry resulted in the convening of several inconclusive meetings of the UN Security Council and an extraordinary session of the UN General Assembly in New York on 20 May to call on Israel to observe an immediate ceasefire, respect human rights, implement the UN resolutions on Palestine and cooperate in finding a just and lasting two-state resolution of the Arab Israeli conflict.

Until a few weeks ago Israel seemed all set to quietly swallow Jerusalem following establishment of diplomatic relations with half a dozen rag tag Islamic and Arab countries, blessed by the former Trump Administration. Israel was also able to divide the Islamic countries into two blocks: those who believe that it is better to deal with Israel as a friend in order to resolve the Arab-Israeli problem, and others who want Israel to deliver on its international obligations on Palestine first before they establish diplomatic relations with Israel. But after the present show of force by Israel, all those diplomatic gains for Israel have reversed as far as international goodwill for Israel is concerned, and to add salt to Israel’s wounds, its sole challenger in the occupied territories, Hamas, has increased its popularity among the Palestinians in the occupied territories. This conflict has politically proved costly for Israel.

Israeli government grossly underestimated the international reaction for attacking Muslim worshipers in Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in the holy month of Ramadan. It therefore decided to divert the attention of the world away from the third most respected holy site of Islam which was desecrated by its security forces in front of live videos which later went viral on social media all over the globe. Instead, Israel tried to portray the crisis as a ‘war’ between Israel and Hamas. With the continued aerial bombings of Gaza in a totally ruthless manner for several days, under the rubric of the right to defend itself, Israel wanted to create the impression that the most important thing for the international community was to ask Israel for ceasefire instead of censuring Israel for building new settlements on Palestinian lands, using force to evict indigenous Palestinians from their homes in occupied territories and alter the disputed status of Jerusalem by illegally making it the capital of Israel. This was also the focus of the Israeli Ambassador’s speech at the extraordinary UN General Assembly Session on the Israel Palestine conflict on Thursday.

Israel is now caught up with another problem of facing the charges of war crimes when the evidence of destroying civilian infrastructure, hospitals, schools and killing women and children in Gaza is presented against Israel before the International Criminal Court at an appropriate time in the future. Israel cannot defend itself against such evidence because Netanyahu is on record to have said that Israeli forces only targeted Hamas militants. Surely, hospitals, schools and women and children in their homes cannot be counted as Hamas militants. Among the 300 plus Palestinians killed by Israel only one was claimed by Israel to be a senior Hamas militant. Until now Israel has got away with the impression that Hamas was the problem in the Occupied Territories and neither the Palestine Administration nor other Palestinians who do not support Hamas were any problem. However, while trying to make the ceasefire an important element in the current conflict to make the root cause of the problem fade away from public eye, Israel has gone too far in its aggression against innocent Palestinians. They have been punished not because they were involved in the rocket attacks against Israel, but because they support and vote for Hamas. The message Israel has given Palestinians is that if they continue to vote for Hamas in the elections, this is how they will be responded by the Zionist regime.

Israel tried to reduce the impact of international horror at the indiscriminate killing of civilians in the aerial strikes by reviving the memories of the Holocaust through the Zionist controlled media and pubic speeches of politicians and government functionaries. The Holocaust memories were meant to create public support for the government of Israel when the world felt sorry for the killing of innocent women and children in Palestine by the Israeli raids. The Holocaust is now a major theme in the Israeli and Zionist propaganda machinery in the global print and electronic media.

The Israeli government also tried to create an equation between anti Semitism and anti Zionism, which are two opposite things. While hate speech against Jews, as followers of a great and oldest Abrahamic faith, is unacceptable in any community in our times, sentiments against Zionism are always linked to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and its political agenda to keep expanding Israel’s borders through illegal land grabs by national legislation, intimidation and forced evacuations.

The implementation of a UN brokered ceasefire between Israel and Palestine should not be an end in itself but a prelude to involving the Quartet and the US as a neutral arbiter between the two sides. If it is ignored like any other incident dominating world headlines for a few days and then fading out in the oblivion, the conflict could come back again to haunt the Israelis and Palestinians in the future. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we act now to avoid this unwanted scenario.

*The author is a former Pakistani diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat, London. He was also formerly a Board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, UK Chapter, and CEO of Muslim Aid, UK.

From Israel’s right to exist to Palestine’s right to statehood

Syed Sharfuddin*

The ten-day exchange of rocket firing between Israel and Gaza came to an end in the late hours of 20 May 2021 after intense diplomatic pressure was applied by the international community, as well as by Israel’s friends to reach a ceasefire, but the mess it created both politically and on the ground will take months to clear out. This time Israel not only repeated its persistent and known tactics to disregard the international status of the disputed Al-Quds, it also grossly violated Palestinian people’s human rights to worship, protest and defend themselves against state approved attacks on their history, life and property. The short -term priority for Israel, following the ceasefire, is to restore the soft image of Israel, which has been badly damaged in the eyes of its traditional supporters in the US and the EU. Israel also hopes that the ceasefire would remove global attention away from the real issue of forced evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to establish new Jewish settlements, and bolster the weak political position of Prime Minister Netanyahu with Israeli voters.

On 15 May 2021, the memories of 9/11 were revived when global news networks showed live images of a multi story building in Gaza crumbling down on the ground in a surprise aerial attack carried out by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). This was a despicable attempt of an aggressor state to block out the virtual reporting of Israeli raids on the civilian population in Gaza, and human rights abuses of Palestinian people in Jerusalem covered by Al-Jazeera, TRT and other news networks. By doing so, Israel declared a war on Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

During the Israeli aggression on Gaza, the Zionist apparatus launched a media offensive globally to gain public sympathy for Israel. Staying away from the current news that its TV channels could not show because Israel clearly came out as an aggressor state, they started showing TV documentaries, which highlighted the struggle of Jewish families in Europe during the Holocaust. There is absolutely no relationship between the adherents of the Jewish faith and the armed action of the government of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu does not represent a majority government in Israel and cannot claim to speak for all the Jewish people in his country. But the timing of showing such programmes made it obvious what the Zionist media wanted to achieve because its own friends and well wishers were disappointed with Israel for continuing to indiscriminately drop bombs on the civilians and destroying homes, schools, hospitals, roads and sources of their livelihood in Gaza.

The programmes that show innocent Jews suffering as a community at the hands of Nazis do not tell that a century ago the Jews also faced racist slurs and struggled to advance in social status, education, jobs and housing in many countries in Europe that were not aligned to Nazi Germany politically. This mirror of history is ugly and it is successfully blocked out by the Zionist media that controls news content and its packaging. History is not what actually happened in the past but what gets reported in the present.

The plight of the survivors of the Holocaust is highlighted not just at times like these when Israel’s approval rating is the lowest globally, but also at the annual remembrance of this painful event every January. But it will never tell its public that at the peak of the mighty Ottoman Empire, when Jews were attacked in Europe where did they go for safety. They were given refuge by the Muslim Ottomans. Istanbul was like Tel Aviv for them. There were no restrictions on them to practice their faith in Synagogues that did not need to be kept hidden from public sight as in Venice once upon a time, or own property, or get education, or train for various professions, or excel in business. The successor state to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, is still as Jewish friendly as it was in the past. It supports the Palestinians not because they are Muslims, indeed they include Christians, and non-believers as well, but it supports them morally and politically because they have become today’s ‘persecuted Jews’ in their own homeland.

The Islamic countries, with some notable exceptions, are not even aware of these subtle undercurrents that make the news. Five decades ago, Israeli politicians used to ask other governments: “where else should the Jews of Israel go if they are not acceptable to the Arabs; should they all be corralled and drowned in the Red Sea?” Now a time has come when the reverse question is being asked by Palestinians in the occupied territories: “where else should the Palestinians go if they are not acceptable to the Israelis; should they all be corralled and drowned in the Red Sea?”

Some Arab and non Arab Muslim majority states have already accepted this illegitimate and heavily shifting status quo of Palestine in favour of Israel by establishing diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv during the last Trump administration. Their explanation for doing so is that by establishing bilateral and trade relations with Israel, they could positively contribute to the setting for restarting the stalled Middle East peace process. They also expect that being friends of the US and Israel could give them extra weight in the Middle East power play. The once popular but now forgotten formula of “Land for Peace” is obsolete because Israel has appropriated most of the Palestinian lands through national legislation and is not prepared to negotiate it for peace. With the announcement for the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem last year, even Al-Quds Al Sharif is not open for negotiation by Israel. If the Biden Administration continues on the footsteps of  former President Trump’s all out support for Israel, other Arab and Islamic states would come under great pressure economically or politically to sign agreements for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in the coming years.

Unfortunately the signs from Washington for taking a neutral, non-partisan stand in the Israel Palestine conflict are not encouraging. On 12 May 2021 on a phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Biden said that Israel “has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your country.” However, in contradiction to the concern of president Biden’s statement, the US did not do anything to hasten the convening of the UN Security Council meeting on Palestine requested by Tunisia, Norway and China last week. In fact, the meeting was delayed from 12 to 16 May 2021 due to procedural US objections. By not agreeing to a joint statement on ceasefire, the US also helped Israel by giving it extra days to punish the Palestinians and continuously pound Gaza with heavy artillery. The US also plans to give additional aid to Israel to bolster its defence capability, support new settlement activities and acquire more Palestinian land in East Jerusalem in the future instead of making US aid for Israel conditional on progress in peace negotiations.

The failure of the UN Security Council to reach a consensus agreement on ceasefire led the Organisation of Islamic Conference, Arab League and Non Aligned Movement groups at the UN to call an emergency session of General Assembly on 20 May. But given the way the UN works, a statement coming from the General Assembly on Palestine has no enforcement power unless the UN Security Council endorses it under Chapter seven. Nevertheless, the General Assembly meeting, under the Presidency of Turkey, brought a moral victory for the peace seekers. A ceasefire was eventually agreed, but only after Israel had heavily punished the civilian population in Gaza for supporting Hamas. The more IDF hit Palestinian targets in occupied territories the more popular Hamas became as the only party, however weak, that has the courage to stand up to Israel in defence of the victims and their distraught families.

Nothing can be more irresponsible than the recognition of the “right to self defence” of a state that has repeatedly violated the human rights of the people it has subjugated by force and created an Apartheid system where Palestinians who oppose the Israeli occupation of their territories are kept behind fences built with tall concrete structures and barbed wires. The current crisis was started by Israel in the holy month of Ramadan when there was no provocation from the Palestinians. At that time Hamas was not even in the picture. The rockets Palestinians used to defend against Israeli firepower consisted of handheld stones, fuelled filled bottles and crude home made missiles with no distance trajectory or target accuracy. Almost all of them ended up being blocked by Israel’s iron dome anti missile system. If thousands of rockets were fired into Israel, as stated by Israel and accepted by President Biden, the casualty rate in Israel should shave been into thousands. But it did not even total fifteen in ten days of cross firing.

The entire Palestinian population in the occupied territories is daily subjected to the terror of Israeli security searches of person, homes, transport and offices, and indirect repression in the form of denial of work permits, closure of internet and mobile services, road blocks, suspension of people’s movement and free flow of humanitarian aid, household and construction goods and medicines. Israel has also nibbled away the occupied territories by establishing illegal settlements and by replacing the indigenous Palestinian population with new immigrant families from Russia, the Central Asian Republics, the US and Europe. The conflict is not only unequal between the opposite sides but also not on a level playing field. Under these circumstances calling Palestinians the aggressor party and saying that State of Israel has the right to self-defence is as ludicrous as saying that a tiger has a right to walk into a cat’s corner and expect no meow.

The major supporters of Israel are the custodians of the democratic values of freedom, justice and human rights in the brave new world. Their concerns about the Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps in China and the stateless condition of the Rohingyas in Myanmar are appreciable but their support for Israeli atrocities in Palestine is most unfortunate and indefensible. Justice can only be served if the contesting parties are treated with a neutral and impartial stance; not when one party is always blindly supported but the other is held to account for its excesses.

In addition to the gross violation of the human rights of the Palestinians, there is also a fallacy that the Jews of Israel bought land from the Palestinians by putting their thumbprints on government approved deeds of sale and paid money to settle there. This is a historical fallacy invented and spread by the colonial powers in order to get acceptability. Even the Arabs think that the Palestinians sold their land to the parents of the present day Israelis.

It is a historical fact that Palestine, as most of the Middle East, was under the sovereignty of the Ottomans. The Arab rebellion against the Turks did free them from being ruled from Istanbul but it did not give them the right to sign off Palestine and gift it to the British without holding a referendum in Palestine. The Palestinian example is no different from the colonial history of Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. Despite the fact that the colonial powers had placed this part of Southern Africa under their military control, and in some cases, decided to settle their own nationals or third country nationals there, they had to ultimately grant independence to the colonies and give the right of land ownership back to the original inhabitants. This was despite the fact that the colonial powers, especially the Apartheid regime in South Africa, had enacted many national laws to regularise the sale of land under their administration.

As the world has made progress, many oppressive customs and laws of the past have been challenged and replaced by democratic principles and fair arrangements. Take for example the slave trade with is now completely outlawed; or military expeditions where a country’s army simply marched into another country, defeated any armed resistance and demanded reparations or added it to the empire of the victor state; or the medieval practice of regarding women as property and depriving them of the right to franchise. Therefore, the propaganda of the so-called sale of Palestinian lands in the colonial period is wroth challenging in the International Court of Justice backed by the UN General Assembly in the same way as the legal challenge put forward by the Republic of Mauritius to Britain for the return of Chagos Islands, which include the strategic island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The Palestinian lands must be returned to their original owners or their heirs with an apology note even if these were bought by the Zionists for a pittance under a colonial authority, because the latter did not have the legal right to approve their sale. As far as the local Sephardic Jewish population of Palestine is concerned, it never exceeded in numbers compared to Muslim Palestinians. The territory and demography of Israel changed after the mass immigration of Ashkenazi Jews to Israel over many decades.

This position is still held today by the Republic of Cyprus regarding the sale of land in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Nicosia has warned non-Cypriots that if a foreigner buys land in the Turkish Cyprus, the Republic of Cyprus will not accept it as legal because, according to them, the land belongs to the displaced Cypriot people who left Northern Cyprus following the deployment of Turkish troops there. This position has the full support of Western countries, which have also refused to recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as an independent entity. If a “position of principle” is acceptable to the Western countries in the context of Cyprus, why should it be unacceptable in the context of Palestine. One can’t help but ask whether this is because the Cypriots are predominantly Christians and the Palestinians are predominantly Muslims? Or the party that stands to benefit from this stance is a Jewish Israel but not a Muslim Cyprus?

The Zionist movement plans to take the borders of Greater Israel to every area where Jewish prophets lived. The territory of present-day Israel is not their final border. Their expansionist design has roots in the religious prophesies mentioned in the Torah and the Talmud, which means that you cannot expect any concessions from them in the matter of land redistribution in Palestine.

How should one counter an argument when Zionist propaganda goes as far back as six century BC to claim that the kingdom of Yehuda, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who is regarded as the patriarch of the Jewish nation, covered the whole of Palestine and the nearby Arab wasteland. This account of Talmudic history, combined with the biblical prophesy that the glory of Israel will be revived in the land that is now inhabited by the Jews and where the Temple of Solomon will be reconstructed on its original foundation closer to the end of times, wipes out any right of the Palestinians on their motherland in the occupied territories established over generations. The only way to address this kind of logic is for the Palestinians to claim all Judaic prophets as Palestine’s prophets and all the historical places associated with the Jewish faith as the sacred places of Islam. Moses is the most mentioned prophet in the holy Quran. His name appears 136 times in the Quran followed by Abraham 69 times, Joseph 27 times, Aaron 20 times, Isaac and Solomon seventeen times each, and David and Jacob sixteen times each. As against this, Muhammad is mentioned by name in the Quran only four times. Four of the one hundred fourteen chapters of the Quran are named after Israeli prophets; namely, the Family of Imran, the Children of Israel, Abraham and Joseph. The Arch of the Covenant is mentioned in Chapter two of the Quran. King Solomon’s story is part of the parables of prophets stated in the Quran. The story of David defeating Goliath and becoming the king of Israelites is also mentioned in the Quran. The prophets and places in these lands are sacred to all Abrahamic faiths. There is no exclusive copyright of one faith on them.

If the Muslims of Palestine and indeed the rest of the Islamic world start claiming the history and heritage of all Abrahamic prophets mentioned in the Quran as part of their faith and heritage, the Zionists will lose their exclusive claim on Temple Mount as a Jewish icon because Muslims will also have an equal claim on it in line with Islamic texts. Although it might sound strange, but in the absence of a just and lasting solution of the Middle East problem politically, the only peaceful option left for the Muslims of Palestine is to use Islam as the rallying point to reassert their rights and identity in the occupied territories in the same biblical rhetoric that is used by the Zionists to gain sympathy for their expansionist project of Greater Israel.

Meanwhile the Islamic countries are so engrossed in their political and sectarian infighting that they have lost the will to question a wrong and support the victims of oppression, even if tomorrow holds the dangerous prospect of them facing a similar threat in their own lands. Their coming together this week in New York over the most recent Israel Palestine conflict was a rare show of unity, and if it could be sustained in the future, the Quartet engaging with the conflicting parties to restart the Israel Palestine talks and successfully concluding these for a just and lasting solution of the conflict may not be far from reality.


*The author is a former Pakistani diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat, London. He was also formerly a Board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, UK Chapter, and CEO of Muslim Aid, UK.

TLP protests and the power of state

Syed Sharfuddin

The past few days in the politics of Pakistan have been reminiscent of the sunset days of the PML-N era when suddenly a small interest group best classified as a non state actor held the government on tenterhooks leaving it undecided whether to use coercive means to end the widespread public protests or follow the path of compromise through negotiations which involved conceding and reversing the course of action earlier taken by the government to resolve the matter in the wider national interest of peace and tranquillity. The aim of this article is not to recount the development of the episode and its end, which is already covered in the media, but discuss four important issues to help the government in dealing with such issues in the future.

The four issues are: the power of government and the credibility of governors; the role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the state; balancing legitimate state authority versus people’s democratic right to protest; and, the role of government and political parties.

1) The power of government and the credibility of governors

The question why the power or writ of government is often flouted in Pakistan by non-state actors, including the opposition parties, is so well known that the state has no choice but to come hard on any incident where its authority is in question or is likely to be challenged with armed resistance. It is not an easy task because while the government has the authority to eve’s drop on personal communications, get search warrants for suspected persons and their residences and even arrest those suspected of disobedience to law, it cannot go beyond a certain point because of human rights considerations and the backlash of civil society which easily plays up internationally against the democratic credentials of the state. This delicate balance is also affected by how well prepared the government is in enforcing its political will and whether those tasked with the mandate to govern keep changing their positions every few days. Sometimes the cabinet is also not united on policy matters and the statement of one minister is contradictory to his statement made earlier or to the statement of another cabinet colleague made on the same issue the same day. The buck in parliamentary system for all such contradictions stops at the door of the Prime Minister who must be seen to be in-charge of his team and ahead of everyone’s game.

The PTI government may be given the credit for acting wisely in defusing the crisis and not showing full force of the state in silencing the TLP protests, but it has certainly failed on consistency of policy. For example it was ludicrous for the interior minister to rush to announce that his ministry had decided to approach the cabinet to ban the TLP as a political party without due process, which did happen the next morning, and yet two days later the interior minister agreed to attend a meeting with TLP leaders and reached an agreement with them to end the protests peacefully. It was also embarrassing that the Prime Minister, who is so rightly against the dishonouring of Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, who made a historic speech at the UN General Assembly about Islamophobia, made no hard hitting statement, nor took any action last year when the French government officially supported the reprinting of the offensive cartoons by a French magazine in the name of freedom of speech. On the TLP crisis, the Prime Minister said one thing in his speech to the nation holding firm on not giving in to the key demand of the TLP but the very next day he appreciated his interior minister sitting down with the TLP elders to sign an agreement accepting that in return for TLP ending the protests, the government would send their demand about the French ambassador’s return to France to parliament for a debate.

The question of government credibility goes further than domestic audience. Once international community starts to suspect that a country’s leader cannot be trusted for his word, then there is noting left for the government machinery under that leader to convince the world that they are serious about a matter of importance. Pakistan has been through this before and we know that many previous US government officials have publicly said that they didn’t trust Pakistan on its commitments.

Unlike the Turkish President who is unequivocal on the question of blasphemy against the Prophet in the non-Muslim world, the Pakistani leadership has, through its unprepared actions and perhaps contrary to its real intentions, conveyed to France and the EU the wrong message that its previous stand against the blasphemous cartoons was meant only to appease the Mullas domestically. In conveying this message the Prime Minister is not alone. he is joined by the whole caboodle of liberal politicians, many of whom, are represented in the PPP, ANP, BAP, and also to a certain extent in PML-N. Pakistani social media also shows this ideological divide. One the one side is the liberal civil society, media and bureaucracy who couldn’t care less what French magazines print about the Prophet or French lawmakers rule in regard to banning Hijab for French Muslim girls; and on the other are those Pakistanis who genuinely think raising voice against Islamophobia is right, even though the timing to do so now is not right because they have missed the boat. These protests should have come about last year when the magazine published the rude cartoons.

The TLP demand for sending he French Ambassador home makes no diplomatic sense because he is only an official of his government. His function is not to make or change French policy but to act as a conveyor of French government’s foreign policy as it applies to Pakistan. He is but a dignified messenger representing his side between the two governments. Sending him home or breaking diplomatic relations with France can serve no purpose except to remove the official messenger of his government and leave the communication line exposed to third countries and media to add their own spice into your messages. The government should never have agreed to this demand to take it to parliament.

In any case, defence, foreign affairs and printing currency are federal subjects and no federating unit, let alone a political party or religious group has any authority to start dictating heir terms in these areas. The government keeps a specialised department whose job as Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to advise the government through its envoys what is best and possible in the interest of the country. But now that the matter has been referred to parliament, I hope that the parliament will not make the poor ambassador a lamb at the altar, but instead agree that nothing should be done about his staying or returning which is a matter only for the French government to decide. However, the parliament should mandate the PM to make a policy statement through his high podium condemning any foreign government in advance if they continue to back their ‘intellectual terrorists’ in the future to cause anger and violence in the Muslim world through blasphemy against the Prophet and hate speech against Islam, Pakistan would consider it as an unacceptable act against its friendship and bilateral relations. The PM’s speech should also say that Pakistan will not hesitate to draw up a list of such Islamophobia promoting countries for starting an official campaign against them through the Organisation of Islamic Conference and other relevant international official and unofficial platforms of Muslim countries to react reasonable and proportionately. This may include such action as boycott their products; stop attending conferences held in these countries, stop accepting tenders and aid, refuse to send their students to their universities and suspend sporting activities with them.


2) Role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the state

This issue has been publicly debated at every forum in the last ten years. However, what is new is that when the state has a constitution, which declares Islam as the state religion of Pakistan; when the elected leader of the country is a practicing Muslim and talks about making the country a welfare state modelled after the State of Madina, and when the state broadcaster dubs and airs for two years a Turkish TV play Dirilish Ertugrul which is half history and half fiction but it takes the entire country, as well as the Muslim Ummah all over the world by a public following never witnessed before, then you are obviously talking about a nation that is not prepared to ignore blasphemy against its Prophet, as well as its religious icons, and that its people expect their government to react strongly if the government of a country where the blasphemous act has occurred wilfully to hurt or infuriate Muslims, does not condemn such act or refuses to take action to stop it.

We live in a funny world. Governments and humanists who were so loud in condemning the destruction of the ancient Buddhist icons in the Bamian province of Afghanistan during the Taliban rule are not bothered with the insults hurled at the Prophet of Islam from their lands. The long conflict in Syria for and against the incumbent Asad regime has resulted in the destruction of a rich historical heritage common to the adherents of three great Abrahamic faiths. No one bemoans this great loss. The West has no problem with the whole humanity wearing facemasks to protect against the spread of Covid-19, but it has issues with innocent young Muslim girls wearing Hijab in deference to their beliefs. No one should be allowed to get away with blasphemy of the Prophet of Islam whose name, when recited in public, results in billions of hands rising to touch their hearts as a mark of deep respect for Muhammad, peace be upon him.

The TLP protests did not fall under the category of a non-state actor challenging the power of the state. Unlike the opposition dharnas they did not call for this government to resign. TLP is a registered political party in Pakistan, or was so until it was shut down arbitrarily without involving the election commission or invoking a due process by the interior ministry. They still have a chance of this decision reserving to status quo ante after a successful legal challenge. TLP has two elected representatives in a provincial assembly. Even the Prime Minister said that his government’s goal is the same as the goal of the TLP except that they differ on approach. TLP protests came not as an isolated event after a long time. TLP had staged similar protests earlier pursuing the same matter, but the government did not take action despite promising to do so. In between their two protests, there was a series of dharnas organised by the opposition parties against the government demanding new elections. A lot of dirty language was used in those dharnas, including verbal attacks on the state’s constitutionally protected institutions. Against the high tempers and the fluid political background of the country, the TLP episode was only a small jolt in the present uncertain situation. It could well be a sleeping volcano but it was not an earthquake.

What is surprising, however, is that the government has not fully used the existing state institutions and government apparatus, such as the Council of Islamic Ideology or the Ministry of Religious Affairs to bring about an understanding between the state and the religious parties (not just political parties) on issues that have caused confusion and distrust between the clergy and the state. Not too long ago, a federal Minister of this government with no religious background attacked the Ruet Hilal Committee for being out of times for sighting the Ramadan and Eid moon and caused more harm than good in bringing upon goodwill between the clergy and the state.

The issues where the government needs to work hard include inclusive reform of the madrassas and their state financing, incorporating Imams and Muezzins in its state employee structure and drawing TORs for their recruitment, employment and retirement and delivering uniform Friday sermons approved by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This will be possible only if the clergy sees these government institutions promoting Islam and finding common ground, and which are run by officials who are not corrupt and who could be trusted with the religious knowledge and services they provide. The government also needs to address issues around application of blasphemy laws in relation to cases brought against poor and uneducated minority citizens, the status of witnesses who are called to testify and the way FIRs are drafted by police; the insistence of Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims in Pakistan and their boycott of electoral rolls, which result in adverse reaction from the clergy against their community; and now the more recent question of blasphemy of the Prophet globally by provocateurs who clearly have an agenda to foment hatred and violence in the Muslim communities and countries and who are officially protected by their governments for carrying out such racist and divisive acts.

3) Balancing legitimate state authority versus democratic right to protest

Organising protests is an essential feature of democracy and defines the political space in which the government and opposition parties operate. In a representative democracy, protests are not the right of political parties alone. Any interest group or gathering of citizens has the right to start or join a public protest in a democracy. In western countries protests are staged against the policies of the government on issues the protestors do not agree with. Sometimes their demands are ignored and at other times these are accepted and result in change of policy. Unfortunately, in countries where democracy is nascent or has repeatedly suffered from authoritarian rules, protests have not evolved into an established form of political expression. The Arab Spring resulted in premature revolutions in countries, which were not prepared for post revolution governance, resulting in great loss of life, instability of state, and damage to the economic well being of their people. In Pakistan, protests do not take place to convey a message of dissent to government. They sound more like a clarion call for a people’s revolution that luckily never happens. The protesting side believes that the government has to bow down to its demands or else go home. The long history of political protests in Pakistan shows that these have been used to bring down a weak government through violence or by creating unstable conditions, which force the military to intervene and restore peace and stability. This is how Ayub Khan’s rule was ended in 1969 and how the lawyers’ movement forced General Musharraf to convene multi-party elections in 2008. Since 2013, a good understanding has been reached between political parties that a regime change through public protests is not the best thing for democracy. However they have yet to develop the understanding that the place to protest and make political noise is parliament and not the street or social media or the country’s TV screens.

It is to the government’s credit that it showed flexibility and agreed to listen to the demands of TLP to end their dharna in the long hot days of Ramadan. Although the interior minister’s U turn so soon after a tough administrative action against the party was a surprise for the country, it was in retrospect a good thing in clearing the position of the TLP as a party which has no hand in terrorist activities. The Sarina Hotel bombing in Quetta on 21 March, only a day after the successful talks between the government and TLP, is evidence of how foreign enemy planned to exploit the TLP dharna to destabilise Pakistan and achieve multiple aims. However, planning and executing a terrorist act from overseas using local sleepers does not happen quickly, and that’s why the enemy failed to anticipate how quickly the TLP dharna ended and could not fast track the terrorist act earlier than it happened. Another lesson for the government is that if public protests on religious questions are allowed to continue without taking urgent and reconciliatory prudent action, Pakistan’s enemies will try to take advantage of it and make the situation worse.

4) Role of government and political parties

There are justifiable questions on the performance of government for not finding a permanent solution to the irritating religious issues resurfacing frequently despite its best intentions to make Pakistan a moderate Islamic state. However, the silence of other political parties, as well as role of other religious parties during the peak of the TLP crisis was most unfortunate and unacceptable. As the country’s opposition they have a responsibility to set aside politics when it comes to issues like Kashmir, Palestine, respect for the honour and character of the prophet, and defence of Pakistan. The opposition and other religious parties failed to meet this expectation leaving the government and the TLP to sort this out between them. It was most unfortunate that some security personnel lost their lives and public property was torched and in retaliation many protestors who were probably fasting were beaten and arrested for disturbing peace. The role of PPP was in particular pathetic when it continued to play politics and boycotted the parliamentary session in which it could have made all the right statements about the incompetent way the government dealt with the matter. That the PPP chose to air its criticism of the government on TV talk shows instead of raising these from the floor of the parliament, shows their seriousness about the blasphemy of the Prophet in countries, which have traditionally been supportive of PPP governments in the past due to their secular ideology and hatred for the Mulla.

5. What’s Next

The government may have crossed the delicate bridge on this crisis and moved on after referring the matter to the parliament. But it must learn to make contingency plans on matters of utmost importance to the country where public sentiment cannot be ignored. It must learn how to create space for public protests and draw up a modus operandi for their organisation and acknowledgement and ensure that it will deal with them not by force but through flexible yet firm hand. On the question of protecting Islamic icons, values and traditions, there will always be a difference between the orthodox and liberal Pakistanis. This difference must be respected and nurtured as part of Pakistan’s rich diversity. However, if the country’s constitution envisages Pakistan to be an Islamic state and be guided by the holy Quran and Sunnah in its affairs, then the state should use its mandate, resources and institutions to bring about a new ‘entente cordiale’ between the clergy and the state to work for the common objective together, and not as mutually exclusive forces. The mischievous question: which Islam Pakistan should follow? is an old red herring and there will be no gain trying to answer this question and forget the constructive things that need to be done first in the interest of the country and its people.

Rich Man Poor Man: A True Story.

Syed Sharfuddin

In a colony of the poor there was a house whose inhabitants had a great fight one day. Their family members had bruises, broken arms and limbs and suffered damage to property as a result of the fight. The neighbours did not know what happened. Everyone thought it was a crazy family, always fighting with itself. Had the family been smart, it would have taken the neighbours in confidence that were all very poor like them and formed one big scattered tribe

The real story was that among the grown up children of that household there was one son who objected to his father going to the house of a rich man who lived in the colony of the rich. The son told his father that the rich man had bad intentions against his maid who was also poor like them and came from their tribe. But the father said he could not do so because the rich man gave him food and if he got annoyed, the other rich persons in the colony of the rich will get annoyed with him and he would get no alms from anyone. The son disagreed with his father. He reminded his father that there were other rich people in that colony who belonged to his father’s tribe. They might prevail on the bad rich man or, worse he could go to his tribes’ people for alms.

The son believed it was not his father’s issue but a wider issue of the poor having dignity and respect. If the father raised a voice against the rich man’s bad intentions, other poor people in the neighbourhood would join his father and the rich will be forced to censure their colleague and ask him to stop misbehaving. But the father would not give in and the son took it upon himself to fight for this lone cause, which he thought was not his own but everyone’s cause in his poor colony and tribe.

That’s how and why the fight started within the household. Most family members joined the father. Some supported the prodigal son; others stood on the margins and preferred to remain silent spectators. The youngsters in the family were too timid to tell anyone outside what was the real cause of the fight. They either blamed the father or the son. But the father had more supporters among the young of the household because he shared the alms he got from the filthy rich man with everyone in the household to the best of his ability and compulsions.

The sad story of the TLP versus the government, which is being blacked out by the news hungry TV channels for fear of PEMRA is exactly like the tory of rich man poor man. The household where the fight broke out damaging and bruising its own family members is Pakistan. The father is the government. His main supporter is the mother who is civil society. She hates the poor and likes glamour and good company. The other sons of the father are different political parties who have their own axe to grind on everything controversial in the household. They are hopeless. The TLP is the rebel son who thinks the social order must change to bring respect and honour for the tribe. The colony of the poor is developing countries, countries emerging from conflict and facing disasters and economic crisis. Most of them have Muslims majority populations. The tribe is the tribe of Islam. The rich man with bad intentions for his maid is France. The maid is the Muslim minority in France. The colony of the rich is G7 countries. They always stand with their rich colleagues in every situation. The young in the family are the media.

The timing of the TLP protest coincides with a legislative bill in France, which seeks to ban hijab for Muslims French girls under 18 attending government schools. It is discriminatory because when it comes to wearing masks to protect against Covid-19 even though it hides the nose, cheeks, lips and chin of the wearer, it is not a security threat; whereas wearing a hijab for religious reasons is not only a security threat but a threat to the liberal way of life of the French people as represented by their government who hold the worst human rights record in the history of colonisation in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity. There is some strong racist mentality at work in the upper echelons of the government in France but no one wants to see it or write about it in the poor man’s household.

The argument of the father has some weight that if he objects to the rich man’s misdemeanour against his maid, he will be told this is none of his business. Moreover, the rich households will stop giving him alms, which pay his bills. The son is also right that unless someone speaks up, the rich man will carryon dishonouring his maid who is from the same tribe as the poor. There have been many previous instances where the rich man has got away with similar advances. If no one takes a stand, he will be putting novel demands on the father before giving him alms. Who knows how humiliating those demands would be if the filthy rich man is allowed to proceed unhindered in pursuit of his lust. The people to blame in this brawl are the young of the household (media) who are not reporting the full story to the neighbours (outside world). They are only blaming the son (TLP) for being belligerent and disobedient to the father (government). If they told the neighbours about the rich man (France) and his doings (hatred of Islam and its followers), the poor (Muslim countries) would know the full picture. The poor are also illiterate and scared. As long as they remain disunited, uninformed and exploited, nothing will change. The rebel son might give up and become like the father or his other worldly wise siblings or leave the household and immigrate to the colony of the rich to reform the system from within, which is also the hope of the maid.

The Vaccine Debate

Syed Sharfuddin

We live in interesting times. In our youth it was just the fear of smallpox, polio, BCG, malaria, meningitis and whooping cough that reluctantly made us visit the doctor. Then came the attack from a whole family of RNA viruses comprising flavi or dengue virus, yellow fever virus, zika virus, alpha coronaviruses, beta coronaviruses, orthomyxo or influenza virus, retro or HIV viruses and orthopneumo viruses. Then in 2020 came the dreaded coronavirus named Covid-19.  Now we are braving its third wave and discussing which vaccine is safe to take.

There are both supporters and detractors of vaccination against Covid-19. The supporters include commercial lobbies with vested interest in selling the vaccine and making money. They include scientists and leaders who want to save humanity and all things associated with good health, jobs and economy. The detractors include people who love conspiracy theories. They include doubters, perfectionists and extra careful souls who value human life and do not like big pharma to treat humans like rabbits in a lab. The common man is totally confused. On one hand he sees the promise of a Covid free world thanks to mass vaccination, of which he wants to be a part; but on the other hand he is told there are many unknowns about this vaccine, which is still in its infancy stage. History of pharmacology tells us how adventurism in virology which was well intended initially, can go horribly wrong later after the crisis is over. There have been many instances of pharmaceutical companies paying huge compensation to people who suffered from the medicines or devices they bought from them unaware that it was costing them their health or in some cases shortening their lives.

In this sea of confusion I have come across a very sensible discourse of some medics, which I find moderately balanced on both sides. On the one hand it advises caution and at the same time it also recommends vaccination. It says that three things are unknown about the current coronavirus vaccine, which is applicable to all the brands currently being supplied in different parts of the world by the few Covid-19 vaccine producing countries. The three unknowns are: the short or long term impact of the vaccine on an individual’s 1) ADE capacity (antibody dependent or disease enhancement; 2) his autoimmune condition; and 3) placenta response.

This discourse advises that:

Persons from the age of 1 to 20 should totally ignore this vaccine because it is absolutely irrelevant to them. Covid-19 does not affect children. 

For people from the age of 21 to 50, this vaccine is also irrelevant because Covid-19 is not going to kill them even if they get it. Organically self acquired immunity is far better than externally induced immunity, because the latter is still in the realm of the unknown. But if their jobs require treating Covid-19 patients, frequent airports visits, international travel, working with public or if they have underlying medical issues they should get themselves vaccinated for their safety and the safety of others.

From age 51 to 70, people can take the vaccine because placenta issues would be irrelevant to females in this age group and if they have no ADE syndrome or no autoimmune disease or condition, they don’t need to worry about the fear of the unknown. For them this vaccine is not the water of life but it is a good defence against a nasty pandemic.

People in the age group from 70 onwards should not worry about the adverse impact of the vaccine because in this age group they are already vulnerable and are likely to have some underlying health issues. Vaccination will protect them against Covid-19, which has the potential to take them down under anyway in most instances.

Now comes the big question of whether getting Covid vaccination should be a choice of an individual or a society because in the context of the pandemic which is still not fully gone, both actors become mutually exclusive. If many individuals don’t get vaccinated the society will be threatened and with it the global economy will suffer too. If society decides that Covid vaccination should become a necessary passport for international travel, or for keeping hospitals empty for other treatments, then individual choice must give in and accept what the leaders decide for their people in the name of democracy. Governments also have a responsibility to protect the life of their citizens, provide healthcare and support the vulnerable. They cannot leave these decisions to individuals. It is not a question of whether you like coffee or tea at breakfast or just water. It is such a serious matter that elections can be won or lost on this one issue alone as the result of the US Presidential election has shown, even though the Covid vaccine had not reached hospitals by November 2020 when the elections were held.

Difficult innit? Let see which way the dice rolls.

A Memorable US Presidential Election: A Commonwealth Perspective

By Syed Sharfuddin,

The Commonwealth does not observe elections in non-member countries. Where it does, the observation is subject to receiving an official invitation from the concerned government and the Commonwealth Secretary-General certifying that the observation will add value to the democratic practice and processes in the electing country. Democracies with strong electoral systems have their own local observers who endorse the election and certify that it is conducted freely and fairly and reflects the will of the people. Although all countries have their own local observers, in weaker democracies they lack neutrality and public legitimacy. These countries need neutral and non-partisan international observers to give a seal of approval for their elections.

Commonwealth Observer Mission comprise constitutional experts, heads of election management bodies, retired politicians, working journalists, and representatives of women’s groups, youth organisations and democracy promoting organisations. Sometimes the Commonwealth deploys its own staff team to observe elections. At the conclusion of their observation, they submit a report to the Commonwealth Secretary-General for onward transmission to the concerned government and electoral bodies before making it public.

The US never was nor is a Commonwealth member even though it may qualify for membership of the association on the basis of its strong democratic credentials and its former constitutional association with Britain. The Commonwealth will never constitute an observer group to monitor a US presidential election. However, the conduct and aftermath of the last US presidential election of November 2020 has brought to the fore a number of issues which dominate the contents of election observation reports of many Commonwealth countries. It is therefore compelling to look at the US presidential election against the standard Commonwealth election observation template.

When Commonwealth election observers visit a country holding a general election, they examine its legal and electoral framework, the prevailing domestic political environment, its election preparations and availability of level playing field for all political actors. A few days before the poll, the Commonwealth mission deploys its observers and experts to monitor the campaign, the voting process, the count and tabulation of results. The observer mission also ensures that the results reflect the free will of the people and are credible and accepted by all stakeholders, including the major political parties and candidates. Their report, which is issued in their individual capacity but bearing the stamp of the Commonwealth, also mentions any shortfalls noted by the mission in the conduct of the election as a whole, as well as includes recommendations for improvement, based on the country’s democratic strengths and international best practice.
Since I was myself not present in the US last November to observe the elections, I have relied on the reports of three international organisations, the OSCE, ODIHR and OAS, which deployed observers in many US states to observe the election. I have also relied on the reports of other US domestic organisations, coalitions and media election-cells that followed developments related to the US election not just on the Election Day, but also many days before and after the election. While I have used the Commonwealth template to analyse these elections, my analysis is entirely personal and does not represent the official position of the Commonwealth Secretariat or its Secretary-General who alone has the authority to constitute a Commonwealth mission to observe elections in member countries or comment on their outcome.

The 2020 US Election
This was one of the most popular elections in the US electoral history. According to several estimates, nearly 160 million voters exercised their franchise compared to the 136.5 in the 2016 election. Before Election Day, more than 93 million Americans had cast their ballots. A majority of these voters were Biden supporters. On Election Day, a majority of those who voted in person were Trump supporters. This was evident from the early results as President Trump took the lead in the early poll count, while vice president Biden came from behind to lead the race in the later count from postal ballots.

At this election, four presidential candidates dominated the candidates’ lists in a number of states. Two of them were the incumbent Republican president Donald Trump who was stopped from taking the second term in office unopposed, and former vice president Joe Biden who was the Democrats’ choice against president Trump. An additional 80 presidential candidates, including 27 women, appeared on various state ballots. The US media-houses established special election cells to cover the electoral campaign. However, only president Trump and former vice president Joe Biden received the most media coverage nationwide.

The presidential election was also combined with the election of the US Congress, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate. There were 1,113 candidates, including 340 women, competing for the 435 vacant House seats. For the 35 vacant Senate seats, 151 candidates, including 42 women were in the run. Eleven candidates were elected unopposed for the House. Elections were also held for state and local executive offices, state legislatures in 44 states, as well as 66 state judges in 31 states, along with various referenda and initiatives. At least 27 LGBTIQ candidates across 21 states and 13 persons with disabilities in eleven states appeared on the ballot for federal elections.

The US Electoral College
The US Electoral College owes its evolution to the 12th constitutional amendment of 1804 but over the years it has undergone various amendments in the US constitution, weakening its democratic spirit but retaining its functionality. The Electoral College is formed every four years for a specific purpose after the states certify the results of the election in their counties to the House. The College comprises 538 electors. Its composition in each state is based on the state’s population. The College indirectly chooses an executive team of president and vice president from the same political party through a secret ballot a month after the November election. If the College fails to elect the president or vice president, the power to elect the executive head of the federation and his deputy is transferred to the US congress. In a dispute over their election, the US Supreme Court has the final authority to declare the winner.

The rules about the conduct of the Electoral College are not very clear although customarily they vote for the political team in line with the popular vote. In as many as 32 states, electors can be fined or replaced in accordance with the respective state law if they do not vote in accordance with the popular vote. The ‘first past the post’ system combined with the ‘winner takes all’ principle in deciding the winner gives all the reserved electoral-college seats in a state to the winning political party team, even if the popular vote in that state is cast in favour of the losing candidate. In every US election the result map of states represents either the red colour for the Republicans or the blue colour for Democrats. A winning team of president and vice president requires the combined strength of 270 electors from any combination of all the federating states and the District of Columbia to force the opposition candidates (president and vice president) to concede the election.

Under the US constitution, presidential and vice-presidential candidates must be natural born US citizens, at least 35 years old, and resident in the US for at least fourteen years. Senate candidates must be at least thirty years old and citizens for at least nine years. Candidates for the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years of age and citizens for at least seven years. Both senators and representatives, when elected, must be residents of the state in which they are elected.

Election Administration
In the US, election administration is huge, running into thousands of officials in all states. It is also highly decentralized, with no federal body mandated to oversee the entire electoral process. While this reflects the devolved feature of the federation, it also makes the US election a highly complex process with each state having its own laws and regulations for the conduct of election. In this equation the lawyers and courts have a much greater say in the conduct of election than politicians or other stakeholders. States are responsible for administering various elections with duties often delegated to some 10,500 jurisdictions across the country. In many states, the ruling party appoints its election management body. However, in twenty states, including the District of Columbia, election management bodies are either bipartisan or independent.

The Campaign
The campaign for the 2020 election was heavily undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic. It limited the traditional political rallies, which, unlike the campaign rallies in other countries, are festive and colourful events. However, disagreements on topics of healthcare, Covid-19 response, police reforms, racial justice, gun laws, jobs, poor manufacturing capacity and the environment bitterly divided the voters along party lines and threatened the racial and ethnic unity which has been the hallmark of the country’s strength and diversity. The long political process which started from the presidential primaries in the states of Iowa and New Hampshire yielded two final candidates in the form of the Republican President Trump running for a second term and former vice president Joe Biden who beat his progressive party mate Bernie Sanders to emerge as the top Democratic challenger.

An interesting feature of the 2020 campaign was that the major presidential candidates were male and senior citizens. Joe Biden’s choice of a woman, Kamala Harris as his vice president nominee, was a strategic move, which helped him win women and minority votes. In the months before the election, over 400 lawsuits were filed in 44 states, some of which were still before the courts when the polls opened on 3 November. These lawsuits increased hundredfold after the Republican campaign challenged the results of the election in many states demanding a halt to the counting of postal ballots after November 4, and a recount in many states, some of which was allowed by the courts. From May 2020 until the close of the poll, there were more than 12,000 protests against the political and criminal justice system. A majority of these protests were peaceful and called for racial justice and police reforms.

Voter Registration and Identification
Although the US public takes its voting right seriously and the constitution protects the political rights of citizens, an estimated 5.2 million citizens are disenfranchised due to criminal conviction, with many of them having already served their sentences. These restrictions disproportionately affect racial minorities. It is estimated that about 1.3 million African Americans are unable to vote as a result of these policies.

Voter identification requirements vary across the states. In 34 states voters are required to show identification before voting, with 18 of these requiring a photo ID. In 16 states, as well as in the District of Columbia, other identifying documents such as verification of signatures or showing personal information may be sufficient at the polling station. Absence of clear rules makes it hard to apply the same criteria for identification throughout all counties in all states. Where a voter’s address or identity cannot be established or where his name does not appear on the voter register, a provisional ballot can be issued at the polling station to enable a voter to cast the vote, subject to acceptance by the authorities at the counting stage. On 3 November a number of voters personally came to vote even after having cast their ballot by mail because they were unsure that it would be delivered to their respective county centre in time for counting.

Presidential Debate
For the November 2020 election, the outcome of the first presidential debate organised by the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) became controversial after the event, with various stakeholders expressing dismay at the undignified tenor of the event. The two presidential candidates, especially the incumbent president, kept interrupting their opponent throughout the debate. This prevented them from addressing the key political and economic issues meant to inform the voters about key electoral promises and polices offered by each team.

The second debate was ultimately cancelled following President Trump’s Covid-19 infection and his surprisingly quick recovery, and also due to his refusal to participate in an online debate. His team also accused the CPD of bias and unacceptable aggressive style of the moderator at the first debate. Instead, two separate town hall debates, featuring each of the candidates were aired simultaneously, with the audience posing questions.

The third and final debate was conducted as initially planned. In response to the controversy arising from the first debate, the microphone of the opponents was muted during their opening positions on the agreed topics.

Vote Count
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the weaknesses in the mechanism of the postal ballot, which envisaged delivering postal vote to the county offices on time to get counted immediately after the close of poll in the concerned state. A record number of postal votes, numbering around 27 million had not reached counting centres by the polling day. A majority of Democrats had preferred to vote ahead of the polling day resulting in extraordinary postal transactions and pressure on the postal service for timely delivery of postal ballots to the respective election offices. This also added to the workload of election staff deputed for vote counting and tabulation. . Where states made arrangements to provide alternative voting methods due to Covid-19, there were fewer problems.

Months before the election, President Trump had talked about voter fraud through the postal ballot; yet states did not make advance preparations to adequately deal with the expected large volume of postal ballot, nor took sufficient steps to assure the Republican campaign that President Trump’s concerns were unfounded or had been satisfactorily allayed. This allegation proved disastrous in setting the response of president Trump to accept the result of the election, which declared vice president Biden as the clear winner. During the period from 3 November 2020 to 20 January 2021, president Trump became more belligerent and agitated about what he called a stolen election. His 70 million supporters, including Republicans in the House and the Senate supported his defiant stance and refused to acknowledge Biden’s clear electoral victory until the unfortunate siege of the Capitol Hill a week before the inauguration which turned the table and paved the way for the smooth and a very different inauguration on 20 January 2021

Election Finance
Even by conservative estimates, this was the most expensive US election in the country’s history. It cost the country about 14 billion US Dollars. This is yet to be confirmed after all expenditure reports are submitted in the post election summing up. There was also an increase of 100% in campaign expenditure over the 2016 election. The US will need to place a cap on this this sharp rise in campaign expenditure in order to reduce the influence of the rich corporate donors on the elected representatives and imposing a moral dilemma on their independent judgement when making laws and national policies for the American people.

Role of the incumbent President
This report will be incomplete if it did not mention the way President Trump took these elections. From the very start he played the role of a spoiler in the game and continued to be a non player after the tabulation showed that he remained far short of the required 270 electoral college votes to win the second term. Even his many supporters, excluding the Republican hardliners, were shocked at his refusal to concede the election without a bitter legal fight. Some senior Republicans publicly expressed their frustration with this attitude advising President Trump to accept the defeat and exercise restraint. This had a positive impact to the extent that for a few days after 4 November, President Trump stopped writing his early morning Tweets claiming that he was the winner in the election. But he came back with more vengeance and venom finally resulting in a number of actions, which were unprecedented in the history of the US presidential elections. These included: dozens of recount requests in courts challenging the results in key battleground states, attempts to block the electoral college vote in Congress through objections raised on the floor of the Parliament by Republican Congressmen and Senators, inciting a public mob in Washington DC to stop the confirmation of the result of election by the joint session of the Congress, preventing the president-elect from receiving important transition briefings by the out-going president at the White House, an outright refusal to issue a conceding statement, and finally becoming he first president in Us history to boycott the inauguration of a president who defeated him in the ballot.

This did not go unnoticed by president Trump’s opponents from all parties and walks of life. Twitter and Facebook stopped president Trump from using their platforms to publicise his statements. The House proceeded to impeach president Trump for inciting his supporters to storm the Capitol Hill on the very day the Congress was meeting to confirm the result of the election. Ironically the House impeachment vote also included 10 Republicans voting in favour of impeachment. House and Senate Democrats also planned to impeach president Trump in the Senate after the inauguration in January as they held the majority in both Houses. In the week before the inauguration, a number of senior officials resigned in protest against president Trump’s role in the storming of the Capitol Hill. These included, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger, Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Chief of Staff of the First lady and former White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham, and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Matthews. A number of world leaders expressed concern about the actions of president Trump in the events leading to the inauguration of the new president Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris. In the news, this US election became the most talked about event of the world after Covid-19.

It is customary that when an election is announced, the lame duck administration does not make any policy changes or takes action which may impact of the ability of the next administration to act independently. However, despite this established tradition President Trump went ahead with the appointment of a Judge of the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created by the demise of the conservative Justice Ruth Bader Kingsburg. To fill in her vacancy, Amy Coney Barrett, was appointed to the US Supreme Court less than a month before the 3 November poll. Moreover, a week after the election, President Trump replaced three top Pentagon officials in the Department of Defence with persons who, according to news reports, were among his strong supporters in the first term. Before his departure president Trump also pardoned 73 persons and commuted the sentences of 74 others.

Violence
Concerns about post election violence or civil unrest were proved incorrect in the aftermath of the vote count, even through the announcement of results in some states was delayed and president Trump did not help things by unilaterally declaring his victory and casting doubts on the genuineness of the counted postal ballots. Credit for this goes to the American public for having faith in their system and to the election administrators in the marginal states who assured the people that they will not certify the results until each and every vote is counted. A majority of the leaders of the two main political parties called for unity and placed their full weight behind the electoral process to auto correct any mistakes. Vice president Joe Biden also delayed his victory speech until it was clear that he had comfortably crossed the required 270 mark in the polls.

Election Observation
The US is quite advanced in domestic election observation and has successfully shared its experience with nascent and emerging democracies around the world through USAID programmes. The US presidential election is monitored by thousands of local volunteers and observers in different states. Political parties also field official observers at polling stations to observe the transparency of the voting and counting process.

At this election, in addition to several hundred local organisations and grass roots election watch groups, a national, nonpartisan election protection coalition coordinated with more than 300 local, state and national partners and deployed 45,000 observers for the election. It also ran a 24/7 hotline operated by some 43,000 volunteers to provide election information to voters and answer their concerns and questions. Some organisations also conducted pre-poll surveys and provided nationwide legal support for disputes arising during the polls. National media houses also conducted pre-poll surveys and deployed reporters for election observation on the polling day.

Three international organisations, namely the OAS, OSCE and ODIHR deployed their observers for the November Elections. The OSCE deployed 52 observers, drawn from 39 participating states. It covered 30 states, as well as the District of Columbia. The ODHIR mission comprised 50 observers. The OAS sent 28 observers and experts drawn from 13 OAS countries. Their observers were present in four states and the District of Columbia.

The Commonwealth as a Brand
The Commonwealth name is not copyright protected worldwide but the Commonwealth of Nations as the successor organisation of the British Commonwealth which was founded in 1949 following post-World War II decolonisation remains a global brand, which represents the collective strength of its 53 diverse members. However, despite its many comparative advantages in democracy and development, which can stand out as models of international best practice, the Commonwealth has remained a modest and inward looking organisation. For instance its rich election observation work of over 40 years spreading over 40 countries with a record 160 election observations, is unparalleled in its peer election observation bodies, yet its collaboration with other democracy organisations outside its membership is quite limited. The Commonwealth has also not shown any keen interest to use its expertise to assist and promote democracy globally.

The Commonwealth can share its rich election observation experience with the Carter Centre, the National Democratic Institute, National Endowment for Democracy, Ford Foundation, Democracy International, the US Institute for Peace, and a host of other democracy organisations and even join hands with them in collectively observing elections abroad. This will, however, require Commonwealth Heads agreeing for the association to enter into partnership agreements with US institutions for collaboration on broader election observation and making its technical experts available for democracy promotion in fragile or conflict affected countries across the globe. This would benefit the Commonwealth more than its collaborating partners. While its partners would benefit from the Commonwealth’s access to governments and election observation bodies and expertise in democracy promotion activities, they can provide their resources and technical personnel to meet the demands of democracy promotion in conflict affected and democracy transition countries.

In order to reach this partnership, the Commonwealth will also need to shed off the fear of US institutions dominating the Commonwealth landscape. Due to its small budget and the majority of its members being small states or weak economies, the Commonwealth may fear that getting closer to the bear could end up in a fatal hug of the beast leaving it overpowered and unable to play the role of an equal stakeholder in such a partnership. However, the few but successful contacts established between the Commonwealth and the US democracy institutions in the past do not support this assumption. Moreover, the terms of the partnership can be written in such a way as to retain Commonwealth’s ability to act independently in all aspects of election observation, such as choosing election observers according to the established Commonwealth criteria, writing their terms of reference, deploying experts, and signing off observers’ reports. Partner organisations can be useful to the Commonwealth in the post election period when the important work of helping countries to implement the recommendations of the observer reports starts. Due to lack of resources most of the time the recommendations of observers are not followed up at all, and where these are pursued, they do not continue to be supported until the next election in the concerned country.

The Commonwealth is not financially well endowed to play a larger role globally, observing elections in non-member fragile democracies or focusing on the world’s large democracies to learn from their good practices, identify their institutional strengths and use these to enrich its own democracy work. The United States is a vast country and its quadrennial presidential election is like observing elections in 50 countries for choosing a common president and vice president, as well as electing their state and federal legislators and local representatives. But there are ways to go around this problem and make an opportunity out of a challenge in order to remain a world leader in the area of election observation, which the Commonwealth is eminently qualified to claim.

It is true that the Commonwealth does not have the budget to observe a US election even if an invitation was secured from the State Department for the Commonwealth to send observers. But it can collaborate with the Caricom or the OAS to jointly observe the US presidential election. It is interesting to note that thirteen of the 35 members of the OAS are Commonwealth countries. The OAS observer mission to the 2020 US presidential election included two observers from Canada and Trinidad and Tobago. The OSCE also joined hands with OHIDR in observing the November 3 election and issued a joint report of their observation. The pattern of international organisations joining hands for the common purpose for undertaking large and resource intensive projects is something the Commonwealth democracy programme should look into and integrate in its activity.

The Commonwealth election observation has sometimes been misunderstood as a one sided activity where the more experienced democracies in the membership happily monitor elections in the weak and fragile democracies in the organisation but without practicing reciprocity or issuing return invitations to them to observe their elections. This makes Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, the UK and few other countries which do not invite the Commonwealth to observe their elections stand in one group, while a large number of African, Caribbean and Asian members in the other group which are always too eager to request the Commonwealth to observe their elections and issue a certificate of approval for their elections.

This divide strengthens the criticism of the Commonwealth as an association of un-equal countries, whatever the stated pronouncements. The stronger democracies in the Commonwealth have a lot to share with the fragile democracies of the fraternity in terms of good practice and how democracy theories and election laws are correctly interpreted and implemented on the ground. In non-election time, some of these countries do contribute to election observer missions or organise election-related workshops to share experience with the election management bodies of other member counties. In some countries annual platforms for this purpose have existed such as the democracy workshops of the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy, but these can never be a substitute for the election officials of a third country observing a live election and seeing how local election offices are involved at grass roots level for managing an election, training election staff, improving postal and physical voting procedures, employing ITCs in the count and tabulation, and improving complaint processing mechanisms. This also gives the observers an opportunity to point out the inherent weakness of a mature democracy such as those witnessed in the US election lately and their reports could be helpful in improving processes and procedures for next election.

All this requires a rethink of the way the Commonwealth undertakes its election observation activity, how it collaborates with other outside institutions for effective partnerships and how it finances these activities for the Commonwealth’s own budget and from other externally funded resources. The Commonwealth should draw up a new comprehensive election observation strategy for Heads’ approval at the next CHOGM post Covid-19 to continue the good work it has been doing with greater efficiency and retaining its long-term leadership role in this area.

Recommendations
The US president and vice president are indirectly elected by an electoral college instead of the direct popular vote. Although the system is an essential feature of US federalism and has worked for over 140 years, it would be advisable for the Congress to review this arrangement and let the people directly elect their chief executive and his deputy through popular vote. This will also remove the present anomaly of a candidate receiving the popular vote but not becoming president because he fails to get the 270 votes from the Electoral College. This is an emotional issue for the US voters who may need a public debate on this change to reach a consensus on how to elect their president every four years. Opinion on this matter is already divided in the US without reaching a consensus.

In many states, ex-felons are not allowed to vote in an election. This disenfranchises the Afro-American, Latinos and other ethnic minority voters more, as a large number of ex-convicts who have served their time belong to these groups. At this election the state of California decided to give its ex-felons the right to vote which is a welcome start. Other states ought to follow California’s positive move to amend their electoral laws for the next election. Because the US constitution lays great emphasis on individual freedoms and importance of representative government, this restriction needs a review, where applicable, to make the voting exercise more inclusive and fair for all communities.

There is a need for states to review current procedures for postal ballots, taking into account the fact that in the future more voters may use the postal ballot or they may choose to vote online instead of physically visiting the election booths on the polling day. Over the past few elections, automation and smart IT equipment have been successfully integrated into the US election machinery. This experience can be used to improve the process through which the timelines for postal ballots are set up, and arrangement are made for their collection and delivery by US mail to the relevant counting centres. The aim of this review should be to finalise the results and tabulation within hours of the close of the polls instead of days, thereby making the process more credible, transparent and indisputable by the losing candidates.

Some states have installed automatic ballot reading machines. These cannot provide an audit trail in the event of a challenge made by a candidate. The physical hand count of the ballot papers in the state of Georgia in the aftermath of the 3 November election should be used as an example to minimise counting errors and create an audit trail to be randomly checked in the event of a challenge, instead of a recount of the votes in the entire county or state.

There are 18 states, which do not allow independent observers to have access to the polling stations, or their laws do not specifically provide for international observation. Although in the 2020 election this could be a valid reason due to Covid-19 concerns, the restriction does not sit well with the requirement of transparency and voter confidence. All states should enact legislation to open up polling places for voting, count and tabulation to local and international observers in addition to the party representatives currently permitted. The argument of space constraints does not hold ground because these are the same arguments cited by other democracy-deficit countries where the US has been advising election management bodies to be more transparent in the conduct of their polls and count.

The US Congress should consider making it illegal for the outgoing president to make senior level appointments to the Supreme Court and other government departments three months before the November election, including after the election day until the inauguration of the new president in January. If any appointments are unavoidable, these should lapse by the time a new president is sworn in and should be left with the new president to decide if he is happy for them to continue in the office. For example president Biden has asked Dr Fauchi to continue to head the Covid-19 response even though he served under president Trump. The proposed legislation would also need to restrict the power of the Senate to confirm any presidential nominations made during this period.

The Commonwealth Latimer House Principles on the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judiciary are universally applicable to democracies, including the US. The power of the president to appoint his chosen judges at the US Supreme Court negates one of these principles if the party of the president has a majority in the senate, as was the case during 2016-2020. This has the potential of making the president commander of the armed forces under the constitution, as well as commander of justice. Such concentrated power was formerly associated with emperors and caliphs. In a representative democracy too much authority should not be vested in one person especially if he holds the nuclear codes.

There has been a lot of talk about the reform of the US electoral system in the area of disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities, gerrymandering and removing out-dated and contradictory regulations, expanding voter education and standardising electoral procedures across states. The US will do well to establish a super independent and neutral body under the constitution to resolve election related disputes. These reforms will improve the US democratic system, as well as enhance its image in other countries to promote representative democracy.

At this election, as in all previous US elections, the question of campaign financing raised questions. The difference this time was rise of many grassroots fundraising organisations in individual states which raised campaign funds not only for their favourite parties in the respective states but which also funded campaigns of their party’s candidates outside their states. After the political dust settles in the first 100 days, the US congress may consider creation of a bipartisan federal body to come up with uniform rules and procedures for all aspects of election related expenditure and implement these across all states. This body should be made fully empowered and responsible to enforce the rules governing federal campaigns and finance.

Conclusions

The 2020 US election was the largest electoral participation by the American people in choosing their political representatives freely without any violence or intimidation. There was no evidence of cyber manipulation of the votes, nor any clandestine interference in the election by another country. There were also no large scale voting or counting deficiencies or systemic wrongdoings. Although voters in some states received fake robotic text messages advising them no to go out to vote on 3 November but go the next day, a large number of voters ignored such fake messages in some states and went to their polling stations and voted freely. The polling staff in all the states, including the US postal service staff, did an excellent job of meeting the extra workload and discharged their duties responsibly and with diligence. Law enforcement agencies ensured the security and safety of the voting public, as well as polling staff. Political parties also behaved responsibly by following the due process in referring complaints and issues to the relevant election managers and their legal teams. Despite the drama and the negative images the world go to see in the aftermath of the election closer to the inauguration day, this was not a crazy and controversial election, the election process as a whole was robust and credible and the results reflected the will of the people. The response of the election management bodies was also positive and helpful in renewing the confidence of the American people in the ability of their time tested electoral system to address the problems effectively and reach a satisfactory resolution. As stated by former president Obama after the Biden inauguration: “The American people are strong. There is no problem they can solve by working together.” The US democracy has both the resilience and resources to implement the lessons learnt at this election to strengthen its electoral processes for the future.

The author is a former Pakistan diplomat and served a Special Adviser at the Political Affairs Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, London. he has observed elections in over a dozen Commonwealth countries.

The UN General Assembly Session after Covid

By Syed Sharfuddin*

For the first time in post world war history, the UN General Assembly is holding a virtual plenary session at the GA Chamber at its headquarters by the FDR Ave in Manhattan, New York. This year world leaders are delivering their country statements through video link from their home countries. As we all know, no one listens to these speeches except media and diplomats who are paid a salary for doing so. These speeches are more for domestic audiences than for international actors. There is also nothing new in these statements which contain a formula mix of each country’s known international positions and domestic policies which impact on their commitment to UN positions, resolutions, declarations and loads of other international covenants and protocols.
It therefore makes economic sense to make such virtual sessions a permanent feature of the UN annual activity. Yes there will be a small collateral damage by way of loss of bilateral meetings of leaders in the margins of the UNGA, but these meetings were hardly substantive. These meetings provided only a photo opportunity to small leaders for shaking hands with tall leaders and addressing a joint press briefing to look equal. Heads of developing countries also found these meetings as an opportunity to reach out to the rich and powerful countries who run the world, the international financial institutions, the UN and its huge institutional family.
If the online country statement delivery experiment turns out to be successful then staggering these speeches like in the old days when a Daily Journal was compiled informing everyone which country head was scheduled to speak on an allotted day or time would make no sense. Online speeches can always take place individually or simultaneously in a span of 24 hours taking into account the differences in international time zones. In the new format, the President of the GA should request leaders to upload their speeches on the first day of the opening of the session. The UN bureaucracy can webcast these speeches live as these are delivered and within 24 hours add subtitles in the approved UN languages. Any one can access these speeches on the UNGA website without waiting for the present system of delivery which has a minimum wait of three days in its duration. Imagine how much UN cost will be saved by cutting down on the format and doing away with the simultaneous interpreters and paperwork. How much carbon print will be reduced by leaders and their entourages not flying to New York on jets and returning within a couple of days. Savings from not hiring those petrol guzzling bullet proof Limousines and extra long Saloons will help those countries who find it hard to get the money to attend the UN session in NY year after year. The citizens of Manhattan will be grateful for not having all these multinational foreigners disturb their lives, as well as traffic, in the monstrous last days of September. The US will take a sigh of relief for not having to deploy so much security detail on the incoming visitors and keep an eye on the unwanted characters. Countries too will be happy not seeing renegade foreign funded NGO representatives shouting negative slogans against their countries and governments in pickets and protests organised outside the old rickety UN building. Bloomingdales’ and Macy’s annual sales will go online with rich leaders from poor nations using Amazon delivery or instructing their PRs to collect the merchandise at their missions and despatch to their capitals by normal cargo. Most of this shopping is done by the ladies of the household to pass time while their miserable husbands are busy attending UN contact group meetings and attending UN business at unearthly hours.
I know old habits die hard and there will be a strong push from everyone to revert to the old format of the UNGA. But realistically this year’s online session, forced by Covid 19, is the best thing that has happened to the UN and should remain in place for the foreseeable future. Let us not forget that fanfare and flashy protocol cars aside, the real UN work is done behind the scenes by hard working diplomats sitting inside the UN Secretariat and at the over two hundred foreign missions, technically called Permanent Missions to the UN in New York, the seat of the UN.

*The author was Alternate Representative of the Commonwealth at the UNGA Sessions from 2000 to 2006. The Commonwealth is accredited to the UN as an observer organisation and is invited at the UNGA without speaking slot.