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Fatima Bhutto is directed by well-wishers through Liyari, one of the worst slums in Karachi where general squalor and water and electricity outages are a daily feature of life. (Photo by Iason Athanasiadis)

What next for the Bhutto clan?

COMMENTARY | February 06, 2008

Nieman fellow Iason Athanasiadis examines the Bhutto dynasty amid the chaos and foreboding of life in Pakistan, with a focus on Fatima Bhutto, a niece of Benazir Bhutto. What role might she play in her country’s future?

By Iason Athanasiadis

If Bilawal Bhutto, the hurriedly appointed new head of the Pakistan People’s Party, is to grow skilled at steering through the shoals of Pakistani politics, he will have to learn to choose the locations for his keynote speeches more shrewdly. At his inaugural address to the international press in London in January, 19-year-old Bilawal, a student at his mother’s alma mater, Oxford University, kept his eyes demurely lowered against the barrage of photographers’ flashes as he sustained a full-frontal assault from the notorious British press pack. The Pakistani and American media’s deferential or congenial softballs did not cut it in London, where Bilawal’s startling rise from schoolboy to party chairman was relentlessly questioned. His replies were clipped and rehearsed, delivered with an international accent, picked up growing in the Persian Gulf, heavily laced with British intonations. So far, so Benazir.

Only in Pakistan can a progressive party espousing workers’ rights, universal suffrage and education be led by a proudly feudal family dynasty whose political crown has been passed from father to daughter. American dynasties such as the Kennedys or the Bushes at least make a show of modesty about their popping up recurrently in positions of power. But in Pakistan, where Bilawal Zardari became Bilawal Bhutto overnight in order to assume leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party, blood-lines count.

The Bhutto clan, or tribe, which numbers 700,000 members, erupted in discord in the aftermath of Benazir’s assassination. While they fashioned a show of unity for the funeral, the recriminations began when Asif Zardari, the widower, moved to cement his control of the PPP by anointing son Bilawal as its chief. Then, family patriarch Mumtaz Bhutto waded into the fray from his perch in Sindh, the Bhutto heartland, denouncing Zardari as a corrupt opportunist and casting doubt on the authenticity of Benazir’s will. Even non-Pakistanis became involved, when Jemima Khan, the British former wife of Pakistani politician Imran Khan, proposed Fatima Bhutto for leadership of the PPP, opining in an article in the Daily Telegraph that she is “arguably more qualified than her teenage Facebooking cousin”. Meanwhile, gossip spread that 25-year old Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s niece and a well-regarded poet and commentator, would be married off to 19-year-old Bilawal, in a marriage of convenience that offered him the legitimacy of the Bhutto brand and her a slice of PPP power.

There was only one catch. Fatima was not interested. Throughout all the drama she remained quiet, refusing to become involved with a part of the family that she has publicly disparaged for its corrupt practices. Even before Benazir’s death launched Fatima into the spotlight, her family name and the socially impolite issues she tackles in her column keep her busy. Her writing focuses on the grave social issues besetting Pakistan, a chaotic nation of 170 million people with literacy levels barely scraping past 30 percent and the kind of daily disruptions that are reminiscent of a nation on the threshold of pre-revolutionary chaos, rather than a stable, nuclear-armed South Asian power. Strikes are called, assassinations occur and riots and targeted car-bombs explode without warning. All of this on a regular basis that unfailingly derails the political agenda and goes largely unreported in the western media. Fatima’s weekly columns in The News, Pakistan’s most-read English-language newspaper, focus on the daily examples of top-down injustice that her fellow citizens suffer.

'Bhuttos die young'

Not shy of making political pronouncements, she is a constant thorn in President Pervez Musharraf’s side. Noting that “we are both blessed and cursed with painfully trite and transparent leaders” she continues “God forbid Pakistan’s politicians were born with slightly higher IQs, imagine the political confusion they could cause then”. Writing a polemic against Musharraf in 2007, she frontally attacked him while he was head of the military, a post he has relinquished. This is perhaps reckless behavior when living in a military dictatorship as a member of a family beset by so many political assassinations. But Fatima is nothing if not brave. In the PPP Shaheed Bhutto (the splinter-party that broke away from the main PPP) office in Karachi, a newspaper cover hangs bearing the legend “Bhuttos Die Young”. It is a reminder of her father’s legacy, as is having to move around Karachi and on frequent journeys around Pakistan accompanied by loyal party stalwarts and a bullet-proof car.

On the frequent occasions that she is asked whether she will go into politics, she states that “I don’t believe that my surname or my background immediately qualifies me for politics, that it’s a birthright, unlike some people, ahem”. Refreshingly outspoken, she adds, “People say, ‘You could have such an impact in politics!’ Yes, but it could be a bad impact. Look at Hitler, he had an impact in politics and I can say we can all agree that he should have stayed a painter. If I can make a positive impact, then we’ll see. Until then, I quite enjoy my current job.”

It was in that capacity that I met Fatima while living in Tehran, when she visited on a reporting trip for The News. We sat in a taxi stuck in Tehran’s interminable traffic on a freezing, lead-weighted evening. There was something of her aunt in Fatima as she adjusted her headscarf and fixed me with her sparkling latte eyes. Our destination was the cheerful, brightly-lit interior of the Armenian Club in central Tehran and Fatima could not stop commenting on the culture shock she felt upon seeing how different Tehran was to the place the news media and her friends in Karachi imagined it to be.

In a country where all women, whether Muslim or not, must wear a headscarf by law, Fatima wore hers with an aplomb picked up through ample practice in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where she now lives. Wearing the veil is not obligatory but, despite her westernized upbringing, Fatima sensitively covers herself when visiting rural districts outside the liberal bastions of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Fatima was giving me a much-redacted but riveting introduction to her family’s turbulent history. It was one of the few cases when the telling of a family saga also mirrors the history of a nation state. In fact, as Indian landowners who benefited from English largesse and were given land in what later became Pakistan, the history of the Bhuttos predates that of Pakistan’s. At just sixty years old, Pakistan’s intricate and feudal politics makes the theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran’s convoluted and opaque electoral laws appear paragons of democratic openness by comparison. Fatima’s father was assassinated outside the family home in 1996 after leading a life that was colorful even by the standards of the Bhutto clan. After the hijacking of a Pakistani International Airlines airplane in 1981 that was blamed on him and his brother Shahnawaz (they were not involved in the action), the two men married two Afghan sisters and settled in Damascus and Cannes, respectively. Fatima was born in Kabul and grew up in Syria, hence her fluent Levantine Arabic. Murtaza’s marriage with his Afghan bride did not last and a second wedding followed, this one to a Lebanese beauty called Ghinwa Itaoui who Benazir disparagingly referred to as “a bellydancer”.

Not western-leaning

Itaoui moved to Pakistan to be with Murtaza and, after his assassination, took the helm of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party splinter faction that her husband created. She brought up Fatima, her younger brother Zulfikar and Mir Ali, a young orphan she adopted from an orphanage in Liyari, one of Karachi’s most poverty-stricken ghettoes. In the summer of 2006, Fatima was in Lebanon as Israeli jets pounded the country’s infrastructure. Having grown up in the region, she understands the Middle East better than most Pakistani political insiders. And despite her American education (Barnard), her politics are hardly Western-leaning. In a 2007 op-ed in The News criticizing the $20 billion arms deal between the U.S. and key Gulf Arab allies, Fatima called the agreement “the most dangerous and indeed the most maniacal – as well as the most foolish, most frightening, and most short-sighted idea yet”.

A few months later, I visited Fatima in Pakistan on a photography trip that took me from the megalopolis of 17 million people that is Karachi to the cultural center of Lahore and through the bureaucratic grids of Islamabad to dusty Peshawar on the Afghan border. The country was already mired in its second month of constitutional crisis. The removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from his position by Musharraf sparked street-protests. On 12 May, Karachi was transformed into a battleground as armed militias threw up flaming roadblocks and darted from cover to let off lethal strings of machine-gun fire. Reckless cameramen covering the chaos for Pakistan’s private TV channels zoomed in on bloodied victims staggering in the oppressive tropical heat of the Karachi afternoon, bleeding.

Karachi upon first impression was like one of those Third World dysfunctional states featured in stereotyping Hollywood films, where bombs are always exploding, government anti-terrorist squads turn neighborhoods into war-zones with wild gun-fights, and terrorists run riot against a cartoonish backdrop of minarets and poverty. In fact, Karachi is the nightmare urban conurbation scenario on which the Pentagon currently war-games.

Fatima remained unperturbed in the midst of the chaos. She would start the day with a litany of the previous day’s news, culled from the newspapers she devours daily. One time, power stations had been razed to the ground by angry mobs protesting the lack of electricity. The next day, two dozen shops selling music and videos were blown up in the conservative northern city of Charsadda where neo-Taliban groups were demanding the imposition of shariah law.

“I’m not worrying about this until it starts happening in Karachi,” Fatima would tell me matter-of-factly, looking at me over her reading-glasses. “Then I know that we’re really in peril.”

Envelopes with bullets

Two weeks later, members of the Christian community of Charsadda, a city in the north, woke up to find envelopes with bullets enclosed in them and warnings to consider seriously converting to Islam. In Peshawar, the religious authorities instructed girls not to go to school uncovered and, in some cases, conservative families withdrew their daughters from the educational system.

On some days, the bad news was so much I could do nothing but burst out in incredulous laughter. There would have been a targeted attempt on a high-ranking government minister, the temporary closing-down of private TV channels, a government operation against rebels in Balochestan and all this to the background of ongoing low-level disorder simmering throughout the country. At night, bandits took over empty roads outside the main cities. The only recent historical parallel I could find was the lead-up to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, after the Shah fled the country in his private airplane.

“A civil war in slow motion has started already between the mullahs and secular society” a Lahore-based journalist who refused to be named for fear of jeopardizing his position told me. “But Musharraf has a double standard: he’s killing Baloch nationalists in the name of security even while patronizing mullahs inside the capital. Mullahs are Musharraf’s Trojan Horses because Pakistan’s main political leaders have been out of the country for nearly a decade. The mullahs and Musharraf are all we have left.”

Few predictions can be made about whether Benazir’s return to Pakistan and her tragic death will be enough to kick-start the democratic process the country so sorely needs. So far, Fatima and her brother Zulfikar (named after his Prime Minister grandfather who was executed by another Pakistani military ruler, Zia ul-Haqq) have kept a low profile and out of the political limelight without shunning it. Despite being just 17 years old, the well-read and always curious Zulfikar has natural political charisma that electrifies crowds wherever he goes. His Urdu is native, unlike his cousin Bilawal’s who has hardly lived in Pakistan. A committed environmentalist and strong believer in religious tolerance between all the different religious communities that Pakistan is composed of, Zulfikar and Fatima represent the least feudal face of South Asia’s most famous family dynasty.

Fatima’s column has formed a political education for her. Her Western education may have instilled in her the kind of comfort in inhabiting Washington and London’s political salons that other regional leaders, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran lack. But Fatima will need more of Ahmadinejad’s populism and less of her aunt’s gloss if she is to succeed as a politician in a country with over twice Iran’s population, far greater poverty and none of its neighbor’s petroleum resources.

Ultimately, the Bhutto succession goings-on are a diverting soap-opera away from the real issues of the day: the events unfolding in Pakistan’s Northwest Front Province and the tribal areas. As U.S. foreign affairs analyst Steve Schippert, co-founder of the Center for Threat Awareness and managing editor of ThreatsWatch.org said “we may be approaching a time when the U.S. needs to determine if it is going to continue to support Musharraf wholly and stay largely out of Pakistan or confront the danger full-on and unleash a full assault on the tribal regions… that will require American boots on the ground and assets in the air”.

Or as respected Pakistani columnist Mohammad Shehzad wrote, “it really does not matter who heads the PPP – Bilawal, Zardari or any X, Y, Z. Pakistan would continue to be run by three As – Allah, Army and America.”

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