01/11/2012 02:09 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

The People Pay

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has fired a volley at the beleaguered civilian government. In its latest decision, the Court announced that "The Government is not taking interest to observe the order for the last two years," adding that "the Court has taken an oath to defend the Constitution. The Prime Minister respected the party over the Constitution."

"The Order" the Court is referring to is a 2009 ruling overturning an amnesty agreement, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, that prevented President Asif Ali Zardari and hundreds of other politicians from being prosecuted for corruption. The agreement was signed into law in 2007 by then-President Pervez Musharraf to ease Benazir Bhutto's return to the country and enter into a power-sharing deal.

To an outside observer, the Court's decision is an encouraging sign that the country's judiciary is at last taking a stand against corruption. That the Court would warn Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani that disregarding the order might disqualify him from office was something of a milestone. The reality, however, is more complex -- as are most official acts in Pakistan.

The PPP government that rode to victory following the shocking assassination of its leader Benazir Bhutto in December of 2007 was in a strong position to address and resolve the what had been the most serious threats to democracy since the country's founding: affirming the power of the civilian government and establishing of the rule of law across the board. Despite the support of the people and the good will of the international community, Pakistan's leaders instead chose to punt, presumably to give the fragile government time to establish itself after a decade of military rule. While the Court's ruling highlights just one decision that was not implemented, there are numerous other examples of other pressing matters that stalled or were swept under the rug, including the investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and failing to appeal the blasphemy law. The PPP's Salman Taseer was gunned down in broad daylight by a member of his own security detail because he was very vocal against this black law.

The PPP government that now is playing the victim card had many chances to put the all-powerful army and notorious ISI in their place. The party instead preferred to opt for political survival. In 2008, an attempt was made to bring the ISI under Ministry of Interior, but the decision was taken back almost immediately. A few months later the Army Chief and the DG ISI were asked to remain in their positions. In fact PM Gilani recently admitted that he actually "begged" the men to stay. The next day he backed down from this embarrassing revelation. The Osama bin Laden saga provided the government an opportunity on a silver platter to exert its power over the military. Even the Army and ISI's most ardent supporters were brutally critical and demanding accountability and forceful action. Again, the civilian government snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Meanwhile the PM and his cabinet members benefited from dumb luck. Gilani, an exceptionally corrupt and incompetent leader, has been spared the withering scrutiny and criticism that has focused on Pakistan's notorious President Zardari. The government largely ignored the country's escalating woes. The nation has been plagued with a shortage of natural gas, electricity and petroleum; a crumbling railway network; a near-dead national airline and other industries teetering at the brink of a total shut down, all owing to the mismanagement of the government. The only growth in Pakistan has been poverty, lawlessness, terrorism and cynicism.

Each crisis exposed the bipolar character of Pakistani society. Instead of respecting the rule of law, the government changed the subject by responding the criticism by appealing to nationalism by standing up for the country's "sovereignty" or adopting the attitude of "if you're not with us you're against us." The latest example of the government's unwillingness to take responsibility, even if the outcome results in embarrassment, is the imbroglio dubbed Memogate, that led to the very public resignation of former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani. The Ambassador, who has a reputation for being too clever by half and is also known for switching sides, had long been the object of lurid fascination in Pakistan, viewed with suspicion, jealousy and resentment. He was known for his gasconade of having kept the U.S.-Pakistan relationship from falling apart. He is accused of conspiring with a wealthy Pakistani-American, Mansoor Ijaz, of appealing to the U.S. government to intervene in the event of a coup. Now residing in the Prime Minister's house surrounded by tight security while awaiting the outcome of an investigation, Haqqani says he fears for his life. It's worth mentioning that there are 180 million Pakistanis who fear for their lives on a daily basis, without the provision of the amenities that the former ambassador enjoys.

Whether the investigation of the circumstances surrounding the notorious memo should be handled by the courts or the parliament is a valid issue that remains the subject of much debate. What is abundantly clear is that this is a scandal that cannot be swept under the rug. Intense media interest has exposed a government in chaos and paralyzed by inaction. Vicious internal politics have left the president, the prime minister, the Supreme Court, opposition parties, the Army and the agencies jostling for position.

Meanwhile the political crisis has thrown the sharp divisions in Pakistani society into stark relief. Seething public anger is being exacerbated by opportunists exploiting mass frustration and resentment. If you express pro-U.S. views you are labeled an agent, anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistan. But if you say that Memogate is an a issue that needs to be resolved then you are seen as pro-military, anti-democratic and aligned with sinister forces wishing to bring the PPP government down. In its attempt to play the victim, the government has resorted to a tried and true strategy: Blaming the media and suggesting that the mess is one big conspiracy. The Army Chief, interestingly, agrees that there's a conspiracy - against the army.

The Memogate story is more than just another Pakistani intrigue. The impression of a President resorting to appealing to American officials to rescue him from his own army is one of weakness, a desperate man hanging by a thread. The government officials on one hand claim that they will not allow a state with in a state, and on the other that they have good relations with the army.

If the government is running scared, they have themselves to blame. If the people's elected representatives had taken advantage of the many opportunities to stand up for the rule of law, civilian authority and democracy, they could have commanded the loyalty of the public as well as the respect of the international community. Now fearing the decision from the Apex court on the 'Memo' issue and orders to implement NRO-related decision have cornered the government. The PPP government, with all its incompetence and mismanagement, wants to fall victim. Because of years of inaction and putting the interests of politicians over the people they were elected to serve, Pakistan's weak child of a democracy could succumb to the common cold. And the public will pay again.