This may seem bizarre, but it is strictly factual. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif to go over to Ankara to undergo coaching on how to acquire the political skills needed to establish civilian supremacy in Pakistan. And Sharif has actually reached Ankara.
, Turkey’s pro-government daily with Salafist leanings, featured a stunning report showing the picture of Turkish president Abdullah Gul (who belongs to Erdogan’s party, AKP) warmly receiving Sharif in his palace in Chankaya.
This is political theatre of great rarity even by the Ottoman standards. But it is also serious stuff. Erdogan’s brand of political Islam is patronised by ‘green money’. Like Sharif, Gul also is close to the Saudi oligarchy (having worked in the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah for almost a decade). I see a Saudi hand in Sharif’s political pilgrimage to Ankara.
Riyadh would have got the Turkish leadership to give coaching to Sharif and groom him up at this historic juncture when the Shi’ite influence in Islamabad is on the rise. Erdogan and Gul can teach Sharif many things: how to mount a platform of political Islam in a country of observant Muslims; how to ride the popular wave of nationalism with an islamic tinge; how to garner the groundswell of “anti-Americanism” (while secretly working for American geopolitics); and, ultimately, how to vanquish the secularist forces through salami tactic so that the ascendancy of Salafism gets established almost unnoticed.
Indeed, Sharif and Erdogan have some political traits in common. Both are grass root politicians; both have been persecuted under a political system based on the supremacy of the military establishment; both have a natural flair for populist politics and demagoguery; both are identified with Islamism; both enjoy reputation as ‘desi‘ leaders and nationalists.
But there are important differences, too. Erdogan has a working class background, whereas Sharif grew up in an affluent background. Erdogan has a strong anti-establishment streak, whereas Sharif was originally a progeny of the establishment (growing up literally as a playboy in the army barracks in Lahore) and even today, arguably, he belongs to it in terms of class interests.
Erdogan was a quintessential ‘outsider’, whereas Sharif merely happens to stand on the outside because he has not (yet) been invited in. Sharif’s is, therefore, the loneliness of the (temporary) exile rather than that fire in the belly that Erdogan carried for decades altogether. This is important because ultimately when you take on the ‘permanent establishment’ and the going gets tough, as is inevitable, there may be painful sacrifices to make. That is so everywhere - not only in Pakistan. Erdogan sat out obstinately in a prison cell without seeking a Saudi rescue package.
Besides, Erdogan is a genuine, unvarnished Islamist of a kind that Sharif just cannot be. Sharif’s dalliance with Islamic forces was a pragmatic move necessitated by the requirement to effectively build a coalition to meet the challenge from Benazir Bhutto in electoral politics. It was, ironically, a dalliance that was also the brainwave of the estabishment (which also generously funded it). That is to say, it wasn’t at all an affinity that was felt in his blood, nor was it a matter of intellectual conviction. When you take on the permanent establishment and the ‘deep state’, there should be conviction bordering on fanatical faith in what one is doing. Which Erdogan had. And, Sharif may still be lacking it.
Again, Pakistan is not Turkey. The Pakistani people have a poor opinion of the political class, whereas Turkey has a vibrant and responsive political environment. Thus, Erdogan’s challenge to the military establishment had political legitimacy, whereas, Sharif’s attempt may look opportunistic. The point is, Sharif left behind a terrible legacy as an autocrat when he was prime minister and he may lack credibility when he tilts at the windmills of the military.
A big question remains. Is there an American hand in drawing up the tricky curriculum that the Turks will be following while tutoring Sharif? These are extraordinary times when Erdogan is acting strictly within the perimeters of the US-Saudi axis in regional politics. It is a tempting thought, but it cannot be excluded that the US could be preparing for a genuine ‘regime change’ in Pakistan. Is the Arab Spring about to sweep Pakistan?
The Americans would know by now that the Turkish ‘Islamists’ are much more useful as allies than the secularist Kemalists would have been. Put differently, Kemalists could never have performed the role for the US regional strategies with such natural ease the way Erdogan is doing while harnessing the Arab Spring. On a broader plane of geopolitics, too, Americans are ‘engaging’ political islam in Egypt, Tunisia and even in Afghanistan. So, why not in Pakistan if an Erdogan were to appear there? The Zaman article is here