In Other Words

The Military's Long Reach

Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy
By Ayesha Siddiqa

304 pages, London:
Pluto Press, 2007

In 2002, I visited Okara, Pakistan, to report on a peasant protest movement. The farmers, many of whose families had toiled there as sharecroppers for generations, were suspicious of a new land tenure agreement that the military, which owns and runs the farm, was imposing on them. To ensure the farmers signed up, hundreds of paramilitary Rangers laid siege to the farm's 22 recalcitrant villages. The resulting violence claimed eight lives. By the time I showed up, a Pakistani lieutenant colonel and several of his armed men were standing guard as one of the last groups of largely illiterate farmers put their thumbprints and X's on the new documents. "We are being forced to sign," one farmer dared to say.

What would the powerful, nuclear-armed Pakistani military have to gain by riding herd over a 16,000-acre dairy, meat, and grain farm in the heart of the fertile Punjab plain? It's zealously protecting its growing economic empire. The farm at Okara is peanuts compared to the military's other expansive interests that include sprawling urban housing developments, rice and sugar mills, cement and fertilizer factories, banking, insurance, breakfast cereals, and road and bridge construction, to name just a few. Two so-called welfare institutions for Pakistani servicemen, the Fauji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust, are the country's largest business conglomerates. Yet the military holds onto Okara as if it were a jewel in its economic crown. No slice of the armed forces' extensive agricultural, business, industrial, and real estate holdings that reach into the billions of dollars is too small to protect, it seems. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf may lament the plight of his country's 30 million landless peasants, but he doesn't talk of land reform at Okara.

In Pakistan, the military almost always has its way. Military-run regimes have ruled the country for half of its 60 years. And each successive military regime seems to tighten the armed forces' grip over the state even further. The past eight years of Musharraf's government have been no exception. Under him -- a four-star general and the Army's chief of staff -- the military has accumulated more political power than ever. And with the generals' increased political clout have flowed ever more perks, privileges, and economic benefits to the 650,000-strong armed forces. "All countries have armies, but in Pakistan things are reversed," says Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy. "Here, it is the Army that has a country."

Until recently, few had a clue just how true that was. Like the military's nuclear weapons program, the scope of the armed forces' economic domain has been a closely held secret. Now, with the May publication of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, by Pakistani defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, the world is finally getting a glimpse of the military's massive holdings. By poring over new public documents, interviewing captains of the military's industries, all retired senior generals, and finding a few gutsy whistle-blowers, Siddiqa has done an admirable -- indeed courageous -- job by delving into this important and largely taboo subject.

Not surprisingly, Pakistan's military didn't take the publication of Military Inc. lightly. For her book's launch, Siddiqa thought she had secured the elite Islamabad Club, a favorite retreat for senior officers. But when the military hierarchy got wind of it, they scuttled the event. The generals also ensured that no premier hotel or restaurant would host the book launch, either. Siddiqa settled for a more discreet location in the offices of a sympathetic nongovernmental organization. But the military's effort to limit publicity only served to whet the public's appetite. For a book that is largely a dry, academic, and somewhat repetitive read, it is selling out at bookstores across the country, precisely because Pakistanis want to know if the armed services are as fat and privileged as they suspect.

They certainly are. As Siddiqa points out, the $4.6 billion defense budget is astounding enough -- especially considering that its budget isn’t debated by parliament, and that lawmakers simply rubber-stamp what the military-controlled government proposes. But what really sets the military apart are its mushrooming economic stakes, which have made the armed forces, especially the pampered officer corps, a financially independent, elite ruling class that enjoys benefits far beyond the usual perks of free housing, healthcare, education, clubs, and recreational facilities.

Land is arguably the military's biggest business and most lavish perk. Siddiqa offers an inside look at how the military's land grabs have made it the country's largest real estate developer and one of its biggest landlords. Using its political leverage, the military acquires both public and private lands at a fraction of market cost. It then develops the land, frequently using military-connected contractors, turning the projects into housing estates or commercial ventures such as shopping plazas. Senior officers are often allowed to purchase and quickly turn over several plots, making them overnight millionaires. Sometimes, the military simply takes what it wants. The paramilitary Rangers have seized fishing rights to more than 20 lakes in Sindh Province, further marginalizing hundreds of poor fishermen.

Siddiqa has also uncovered for the first time how deeply the military's tentacles run into the private sector. The military's four foundations have holdings in more than 700 companies. The addition of its extensive real estate holdings to that stake gives them at least a 10 percent share of the country's private-sector assets, and significant economic leverage. Of the 96 enterprises run outright by the four welfare foundations, only nine are publicly listed and subject to public scrutiny, she says. Under Pakistani law, the foundations are not obliged to open their balance sheets to either the public or Pakistan's auditor general.

Siddiqa also explodes one of the myths that military leaders have long promoted: that military businesses are as, or more, efficient than those in the private sector, and that critics are simply envious of that success. Musharraf and other generals have always claimed that military entrepreneurship is a plus for the economy. Siddiqa proves otherwise. Retired officers heading up the military-controlled firms are largely to blame for the companies' poor management and faulty investment strategies. And military ventures, whether successful or not, regularly benefit from generous government subsidies and bailouts. The profitable Fauji Fertilizer complexes, for example, receive subsidized natural gas; their competitors don’t. In 2001, the government shelled out some $93 million to cover a long list of the Army Welfare Trust’s loss-making projects producing everything from shoes to cement to pharmaceuticals. And even the military's Frontier Works Organization, the country's largest road contractor, lost $70 million in 2000.

The military tenaciously defends its economic ventures, saying it provides for the welfare of 9.1 million people, including retired soldiers and their dependents who would have a tough time making ends meet on their modest pensions. That's fair enough. Fauji runs 276 military welfare operations, 11 hospitals, and 90 schools. The Army Welfare Trust provides jobs to 5,000 military retirees, as well as to thousands of civilians.

But the real philosophical basis for the military's sprawling interests stems less from a concern for soldiers' welfare, Siddiqa argues, and more from the same arrogance that is used to justify military coups: that only the military possesses the discipline, training, and efficiency to run a country and a company, or indeed a civil service or university. To an increasingly cocksure military, she says, these economic privileges are seen as well-deserved tribute for defending the country. Of course, this predatory attitude only widens the yawning divide between the military and civilians.

Worse yet, the military's enormous vested interests in the economy are driving it to maintain and expand its political influence at all costs, thus lessening, if not foreclosing, the possibility that the generals will ever return to the barracks and allow democratic institutions to grow and flourish. As she rightly concludes, that's the heaviest price that Pakistanis are paying for their military, inc.

In Other Words

Cairo's Taxicab Confessions

By Khaled Al Khamissi

222 pages, Cairo: Dar al-Shorouk, 2007 (in Arabic)

Four months before he passed away in July, leading Egypt scholar Alain Roussillon expressed deep concerns over the rising tensions in Egyptian society. They reflected the return of "the social question" in Egyptian politics. The greatest threat to the regime, he suggested, was not the Muslim Brotherhood or any other opposition group but rather the popular attitudes toward it. Judging from the more than 200 sit-ins, work stoppages, hunger strikes, and demonstrations that occurred across the country last year alone, Egyptians are increasingly expressing genuine grievances with their government.

But you wouldn't sense the fear or anger of the average Egyptian by listening to the high-minded talk of the country's elites at political seminars and salons. As in many countries throughout the Middle East, it is the "street language" that explains the ways in which average Egyptians think and behave politically. Strong as they are in numbers, the majority of the country's citizens represent an Egypt whose voice is hardly heard.

So, when Khaled Al Khamissi, an Egyptian political scientist-turned-screenwriter and journalist, set out to decipher the political attitudes of the average person on the Arab street, he decided to talk to the people who spend their days driving it: the cabbies of Cairo. They have the privilege of mingling with people from across the social spectrum; as such, their views often reflect the thinking of al-ghalaba, a popular term coined to refer to the lower strata of society who live on the periphery of politics and yet are so affected by it. During his year of traveling the city almost exclusively in cabs, Khamissi came to believe that some taxi drivers offer a much deeper analysis than prominent and well-versed political analysts, that they are important barometers of popular moods and grievances against the government.

The result of his research is Taxi, a novel released in January and already a huge bestseller, with more than 35,000 copies sold in a country where 3,000 is considered a success. But instead of weaving together a well-defined narrative or adventure, Khamissi produced a series of vignettes of different drivers' experiences, in an attempt to capture the broadest possible picture of the other side of Egyptian politics. For that reason, and perhaps also to protect characters' identities, the "drivers" he introduces in Taxi are composite figures, fictional products of his time spent talking to cabbies about everything from economics and education to health and politics.

Egyptians' interest in the book shouldn’t be surprising. Although there has been an abundance of scholarly work attempting to determine "what happened to the Egyptians," Khamissi's novel stands out. His unlikely approach, lucid prose, and rare insight into popular perceptions make Taxi perhaps the most interesting of the works that chronicle the social and political transformations Egypt has undergone during the past five decades.

Of course, it helps that he chose to document the "street" at one of the most politically charged moments in recent Egyptian history. For the first time in decades, popular dissent was not directed primarily against Israel or the United States, but against a domestic adversary -- the state -- and the security apparatuses that control the nerve centers of the regime. From April 2005 to March 2006, Khamissi watched the street emerge as a center stage of political activities from anti-regime protests, demonstrations, elections, and scenes of abhorrent violence committed against protesters.

He had a front-row -- or, more accurately, backseat -- view of Egyptians' reactions to the first nonpartisan protest movement to challenge President Hosni Mubarak's regime. A series of political events were to follow, including the country's first presidential elections, with nine other candidates vying for Egypt's top post. (Not that it made any difference.) Then came parliamentary elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats after hard, violent battles and thuggery by the ruling party. The year also saw the street become the heart of the battle between the younger Mubarak supporters and critics.

And all the while, Khamissi was watching, listening to the drivers, who are often teachers, accountants, and lawyers by training but whose country cannot offer them work to match their education. Outraged by economic austerity and ruled by the discontent of the impoverished lower classes, taxi drivers appropriated their little public space to vent their anger and frustration against the government to strangers who might espouse similar grievances. Taxi's brilliance is that it captures the point at which cabs cease to be just a means of transportation and instead become a space for debate and exchange, at a time when all other public spaces, including the street itself, had become inaccessible under the brutal force of the police state.

Amid this tumultuous atmosphere, Khamissi's conversations yield several great insights into the schizophrenic relationship between the Egyptian and the state. There is at once a deep-rooted contempt for authority but also an overwhelming fear that stops them from rebelling against it. Some theories date this conflict back to the time of the pharaohs, noting that Egypt has always been a strong and interventionist state -- and Egyptians have simultaneously, almost religiously, feared and worshipped its authority since the country’s infancy. Khamissi recreates one incident that reflects this ambivalent relationship through a driver who insults the Interior Ministry, a symbol of oppression for many, but in the same breath says he respects it.

In another episode, Khamissi offers a simple answer as to why Egyptians don't join street protests, despite their suffering and misery. "Everything has lost its meaning now," says one driver. "Two hundred people are surrounded by two thousand officers and conscripts." Although, as Khamissi tells it, the popular perception of the government is that "it is weak, corrupt, and terrified. If you blow it away, it will fall to pieces," report several drivers. But if that is the dominant perception, why don't they rise against it? Explaining the chronic political apathy of the Egyptians, one driver remarks: "The problem is with us Egyptians, the government has planted the seeds of fear from hunger in us. This made us only think of ourselves, and our only preoccupation is how we make ends meet." As Khamissi has one of his "drivers" eloquently putting it, "We are living a lie, and the government's role is to make sure that we continue to believe it."

Among the cabbies whose voices Khamissi recreates, the economic question remains by and large the real headache -- with salaries that are barely enough for basic necessities and price hikes that are a daily routine. His drivers blame the government, which thinks only about the "rich and the tourists." "The government's real plan is to drive us out of the country. But if we do, it will have no one to cheat and steal from." Not exactly the kind of honesty you get from Cairo's salons or think tank meetings on democratization in the Middle East.

That's exactly why Khamissi has struck a chord. More than anything, his taxi tales suggest that there is a huge social storehouse of anger and frustration against the status quo. The sad reality is that, if Khamissi's depiction of Cairo's jaded drivers is correct, there is little chance their disaffection will soon be turned into a force for change in a society whose development has been stalled for so long.