Former Pakistani President Says 'Benevolent' Autocracy Sometimes Preferable to Democracy

Pervez Musharraf answered community and student questions at GW’s National Churchill Library and Center.

Pervez Musharraf was president of Pakistan for eight years. (Eddie Arrossi Photography)
Pervez Musharraf was president of Pakistan for eight years. (Eddie Arrossi Photography)
April 17, 2017

By Ruth Steinhardt

Democracy does not work unless it is tailored to the society in which it is implemented, said Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, at the George Washington University Wednesday night.

“I personally believe [democracy] requires a certain education level, and it requires a society that is…not in tribal divisions,” he told a capacity audience at the National Churchill Library and Center in the Gelman Library.

Imposing a Western democratic model could be counterproductive in post-colonial regions that contain countries created “in the drawing rooms” of colonizers without regard for tribal composition or territory, he said. Even when nominally democratic, he said, such still-feudal societies can perpetuate the inequalities that arose under colonial rule.

Mr. Musharraf said “benevolent autocratic governors” are more effective leaders in societies struggling with sectarian conflict, poverty and illiteracy.

“There has not been a single civilian government in Pakistan that can claim to have given socioeconomic prosperity to Pakistan and to have looked after the interests of the people of Pakistan, unfortunately,” said Mr. Musharraf, who came to power by a military coup in 2001. “But another military coup or martial law is not the answer. The answer lies in addressing the flaws in the democracy we’re running…and ensuring there are checks and balances.”

In a a wide-ranging discussion with NCLC Director Michael F. Bishop and comprehensive Q & A session with GW students, reporters and others, Mr. Musharraf also discussed Pakistan’s long-fraught relationship with India. Relations between the two nations, both armed with nuclear weapons, were further strained recently when Pakistan sentenced an Indian national to death for espionage and sabotage.

In answer to a student’s question, Mr. Musharraf said the Indo-Pakistani relationship at present is “most terrible,” a condition caused in his opinion by India’s “aggressive stance.” He said Pakistan, with its smaller conventional military force, has every right to defend itself against the “existential threat” of India’s nuclear arsenal.

Still, Mr. Musharraf said, both states should go to any lengths to avoid warfare.

“I know the hazards of war,” said Mr. Musharraf, a retired four-star army general. “Maybe everyone does not. I have fought two wars. My best friend was killed in action. My son is named for him. We must stop wars, and our intentions must be noble for the whole region and the world.”

Pakistan also has a particularly key role to play in establishing potential world peace, he said.

“If Pakistan is on an ascendant course, recognized in the world as a progressive dynamic nation, then we can play a great role in the Muslim world and also in bringing peace,” Mr. Musharraf said. Pakistan should “set its own domestic situation right and then play a mediatory role between Saudi Arabia and Iran for peace in the region.”

Though he said “most conflicts in the world today involve Muslim countries,” Mr. Musharraf emphasized that it would be counterproductive to conflate Islam and conflict.

“We should not associate religion with terrorism, because terrorism has no religion,” he said. “Islam is as peaceful as any other religion in the world, if not more.”

The NCLC will host Lord David Owen, former British foreign secretary, at 6 p.m. on April 26.

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