Bhutto was unique: Mark Siegel
By Asma Amanat
As the month of December comes to a close, gloom in the air rises up several notches. In the mid of this month, Pakistan lost its eastern wing in 1971. In the bitter cold of December 2007, the world lost one of the greatest leaders of Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of people mourn the first death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Her death brought tears even to those who were against her. However, this month is especially hard on Ms Bhutto's family and her close friends. One of those very cherished friends is Mark Siegel.
Mr Siegel was Ms Bhutto's friend for almost 25 years during which he shared her sorrows and joys discreetly. He was her friend and lobbyist, a key player in negotiations between her and the Musharraf government.
When I called to ask for an interview about Ms Bhutto, he cheered up and mourned at the same time. Although we were talking over the phone, I could see his eyes brimming with tears. At times his voice quivered with emotion. His genuine affection for Ms Bhutto was evident from the way he spoke about her. "We were close friends for 25 years; we grew up together, worked together, wrote together and at times, we could finish off each others' sentences. I miss her extraordinarily; I have not reconciled to her being not with us. It has been a great tragedy not only for me but a great tragedy in terms of loss of legitimacy and the voice she had internationally as well as domestically. It's rough."
He recalls fondly. "A lot of people from Pakistan treated her as an icon or goddess or whatever, but she was my friend, she would tell me when I was wrong and I would tell her when she was wrong. There were no cultural barriers that separated us. I just miss so much talking to her. I can't tell you how many times I have reached for the telephone when something global had happened to run it by her. And then I stop." He says he was sometimes frustrated with her stubbornness. However, she won 9 out of 10 intellectual arguments that they had. Her curiosity, her quick processing of the information was most admirable, Mr Siegel declares.
Mark Siegel collaborated with Ms Bhutto on her final book ‘Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West’ which gives a clear vision of reconciling East and West and how she would have dealt with religious extremism and militancy.
Pakistani intellectual circles are convinced that democracy and dictatorship alternate in Pakistan according to the dictates of America. But Siegel reminds us that this is the major theme of her last book: "The United States advances dictators for their short-term goals when necessary. The book talks about the great mistake the West made in the jihad in Afghanistan and leaving immediately after the Russians were defeated and not trying to coalesce pluralistic society in Afghanistan. I remember her saying to President Bush Sr in 1991: 'Mr President! You're creating a Frankenstein and this will come back to haunt us' and that is exactly what happened."
Has this been rectified now, I asked. The critical rejoinder was: "The US and NATO are engaged in a war in Afghanistan. I'd like to think that once the country is stabilised, they would pour resources in the social and economic foundation of the country, but it is silly to talk about it when there is an active war going on in 70 percent of the country." Pakistani moderates believe that Ms Bhutto let them down by not advancing a moderate and secular agenda, and giving in to some of the goals of the jihadis when in power. But Siegel says he had the opportunity to learn first hand how Ms Bhutto felt about it. He says, "We talked about it all the time. She said it was frustrating and that we have to do incremental changes and not opt for revolutionary changes...You're a Pakistani, you know the political and cultural constraints in trying to bring dramatic change."
Mr Siegel was part of the intense negotiations between General Pervez Musharraf and Ms Bhutto as a result of which she returned to Pakistan on October 18, 2007. He categorically denied any deals between Ms Bhutto and General Musharraf – "Everyone talks about a deal; there was no deal. All Benazir wanted was fair elections and having to contest those elections. That was the key and as it turned out the elections that occurred were relatively free and fair." Although he is not authorised to speak about these negotiations, he did deny rumours of Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary Chertoff's involvement in the negotiation process. He acknowledged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ambassador Patterson and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher's involvement in the process. Mr Rehman Malik, federal interior adviser to Prime Minister, was present in one of these negotiations in Abu Dhabi, he indicated.
Several reasons are advanced for her murder. Some speculate that she had made promises that she did not fulfill once she was in Pakistan in 2007. Mr Siegel was in constant communication with Ms Bhutto and believed that their messages were intercepted. He said somewhat heatedly: "I don't know how anyone can say that. I don't know what they are accusing her of backing out. We know what the motivation was, and the motivation was that some people did no want her to be the Prime Minister; they did not want her to bring change to Pakistan; people thrive on chaos; these people did not want Pakistan to become a modern technological state. I want to learn more about the assassination. I don't think we know enough."
Christine Fair, a political scientist at RAND, once told me that Pakistani intelligence services were not very forthcoming with Scotland Yard about information regarding Benazir's assassination. Mr Siegel says "I am much more concerned with who planned it, who paid for it, who trained these people, which young man pulled the trigger is of little interest to me; it's what, how, and why that interests me." Benazir had requested for four vans that would move ahead, behind and on the two sides for her protection. But her request was denied by the Musharraf government. "We were not allowed...the party was not allowed to import those vehicles; we were not allowed to bring trained personnel from abroad, the visas were denied....I do know that earlier in the day there was a great deal of security, but later the protection was withdrawn." He insisted that questions about her security in Pakistan should be directed to the PPP leaders.
So who killed this great personality?
In an email written to Mr Siegel on October 26, 2007, Ms Bhutto had wanted the world to hold General Musharraf accountable for her death. There were other people named also. Among those were Punjab's former Chief Minister, Mr Pervaiz Elahi, and Brigadier (r) Ijaz Shah. Some of these names were removed from the FIR. In fact some are believed to be working closely with Prime Minister Gilani. Mr Siegel says: " really don't know anything about that."
Was there an international conspiracy behind our great leader's murder?
Mr Siegel disregards it as "speculations.". However, he adds "Obviously it was an attempt to create instability in Pakistan...to disrupt her coming to office...but you know…there are also people abroad who do not want Pakistan to become a bridge between the East and the West. I don't know; that's why I'm asking all those questions."
What is Ms Bhutto's legacy then?
Scholars believe that her father left Pakistan with 1973's Constitution and initiated Pakistan's nuclear programme. Mr Nawaz Sharif was the one who inaugurated the Motorway and tested Pakistan's nuclear assets. So what did Benazir do? Mr Siegel says passionately pointing to the book he had collaborated with Ms Bhutto that "She was the voice of modern Islam; she was a symbol of what a Muslim woman can accomplish; she was a modern force, she was committed to technologically moving the country to the 21st Century; she was committed to human rights, student unions, labour unions, electrification of villages; these were the steps towards modern Pakistan. Her legacy would be a moderate tolerant Pakistan."
In an interview to me earlier, Ms Bhutto said very lovingly that her younger daughter Asifa helped her in keeping her correspondences. However she never mentioned anything about her children being in politics. In unusual circumstances, her son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was nominated Co-chairman of the party. I asked Mr Siegel what his mother would have thought about it. In a reserved tone, Mr Siegel said; "I know the answer to that question, but that was very, very personal and I don't want to answer that."
Would she have helped get rid of the 17th Amendment and Article 58(2b)?
He said: "She made it clear that Pakistan should return to the 1973 Constitution and the parliamentary system, where the head of the state does not have the legal authority to bring down the elected government." In extraordinary circumstances, Mr Zardari held the party and the country together. He is admired by many for that, including Mr Siegel. He feels "Asif Zardari has stepped up to the plate in extraordinary circumstances." But did Benazir want him to be the head of state? Mr Siegel believes "When Benazir was alive, she was our leader, she was the boss…Asif Zardari and Benazir Bhutto are two different people. Whatever he has done is on her name. We have to judge him by the standards of this time. We can't compare him or anyone else to her. Benazir was Benazir; Benazir was unique; Benazir was extraordinary; Benazir is gone, and now, we have to move forward."