What Egypt Can Learn From Pakistan

If you want to get back at your political enemies, democracy is the best revenge.

A Shi'ite Muslim woman takes part in a rally in support of the people of Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen held in the streets of Karachi on March 27, 2011. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

A military helicopter, painted in neon green laser lights, hovered over the crowds in Tahrir Square as they celebrated the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected leader. In October of 1999, I was one of many Pakistanis who celebrated the expulsion of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government by General Pervez Musharraf. The circumstances couldn't have been more similar. Having come to power through a discredited election, Sharif enjoyed unprecedented power that he appeared to be using to set himself up as a modern Caliph with an almost divine right to rule. But the situation came to a head when Sharif fired Musharraf, a junior general whom Sharif himself had promoted through the ranks, while he was overseas. Which is why when Musharraf talked about a new Pakistan, a more secular Pakistan, and made the promise of free and fair elections, I rejoiced, giddy with excitement that our country might be afforded a fresh start.

All that though was only a false shroud, though, as Pakistan suffered through an almost decade-long dictatorship under him. Our economy tumbled, we remained embroiled in a shadowy war in the tribal regions, our relationship with India took a nose-dive, with Musharraf's reign ending only after his attempt to oust the chief justice resulted in his own downfall.

Pakistanis, like much of the world, have kept a close eye on Egypt ever since Tahrir Square first became a symbol for a people rising up in the face of unspeakable oppression. And yet with the whole world's focus on the Middle East, Pakistan recently underwent the first transition in its history from one democratically elected government to another. In spite of the best efforts of the Taliban, the elections saw a record turnout . Unlike Egypt's democracy, which had all the fire of an adolescent coming of age, Pakistan's democracy seemed to have grown up, bought a minivan, and moved to the suburbs with the kids and a terrier. But this political maturity has not come about easily. Musharraf was Pakistan's fourth military dictator in an illustrious line. Between them, they had started an unprovoked war with India in the '60s (Ayub Khan), engineered the separation of Bangladesh in the '70s (Yahya Khan), and made Pakistan the hotbed of militant Islamic extremists in the '80s (Zia-ul-Haq). All of these men in khaki uniforms had been greeted with some amount of popular approval and yet left the country with wounds yet to heal.

Egyptian people are right to be angry at the Morsi government, which failed to deliver on most of the promises it made. And yet a lot of what Morsi is accused of doing -- consolidating power, intimidating opponents, and mismanaging the economy -- seems to not be out of the ordinary. Democracies, particularly ones as young as Egypt's, are never pretty, at least not when they are growing up. While military dictatorships offer an illusion of control and stability, no country knows better than Egypt about the lasting ill effects of unelected governments. The '90s were a time of particular turmoil in Pakistan, with civilian governments exchanging power like needles in a crack shack, resulting in ubiquitous discontent. And yet, Pakistan's foundations were never made weaker than by the decisions of a military machine that ostensibly is government's most disciplined and nationalistic wing.

The irony of the champions of democracy now dancing in the streets as champions of a military coup is not subtle. As Pakistanis, we had always looked toward the democracies of the West and hoped for similar stability and decorum, without realizing what it took for those systems to reach that state. To my brothers in Egypt, I wish them well in their struggle but offer them the highest degree of caution when greeting an ambitious general. Some of the military's intentions have already been made clear with the systematic pursuit of the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership. While I hope very much that this celebration will not be seen as an egregious and immature display of misdirected frustration, history paints a pessimistic picture. As Pakistanis have now realized -- none more so than Nawaz Sharif, who was recently elected back into power after years spent in jail and exile -- revenge is best served at the ballot box.