The stolen fire of Prometheus —Mahmud Sipra

Prometheus remains an appealing symbol of both raw courage and defiance, the archetypal Greek deity who took on the might of the ruler presiding over the Olympian pantheon

In some future moment when the euphoria over President Musharraf’s exit is allowed to subside and other events overtake this beleaguered nation, someone will reflect and be reminded of King Pyrrhus’s wry observation after his victory over the Romans in 279 BC: “If we win another such battle…we would be completely lost.”

Those that are now holding forth on this Pyrrhic victory may also bear in mind that no president — military or civilian — has ever left this exalted office of his own accord.

Here is a short chronology:

Field Marshall Ayub Khan — once considered an “Atlas” — was forced to resign, and handed over the mantle of COAS and the Presidency to General Yahya Khan.

Yahya was forced to vacate the presidency when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over from him one cold fateful December night in 1971.

Mr Bhutto voluntarily stepped down from the Presidency — after stripping it of its powers and becoming prime minister himself.

Choudhri Fazal Elahi took over the ceremonial duties of a president but was sent home a few years later by General Zia-ul Haq.

Gen Zia — the last of the mughals — ruled over Pakistan for close to ten years and finally after his death, the Presidency fell into the lap of the dour civilian bureaucrat Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Ishaq was sent home by the then PPP chairperson and prime minister Benazir Bhutto and replaced by a hand-picked party stalwart — considered a “safe” candidate: Farooq Leghari.

Leghari remained in office but sent the Bhutto government packing. Nawaz Sharif became prime minister and took on the might of the Imperial Presidency, resulting in the resignation of Leghari.

Leghari was replaced by the ineffectual Rafiq Tarrar, installed by Nawaz Sharif. Tarrar was sent home by General Pervez Musharraf soon after he removed Sharif and his government in retaliation for attempting to remove him.

Some years later, General Musharraf, former COAS and former “Chief Executive”, predictably took over as president and held that office in his Zeus-like grip until his resignation last week. A ‘caretaker’ president holds the office until the ruling party — Zardari’s PPP — decides who is to hold the coveted and all powerful office of the president.

If the signals coming from the Zardari camp are to be believed then Asif Zardari — who is being spoken about in certain circles as a modern day Prometheus — will in all probability become Pakistan’s 10th president since it became a Republic and the 15th since Independence.

[Whether Zardari takes over the Presidency himself or allows one of his trusted party members to assume the office is still written in the wind. The ill wind blowing from the Nawaz Camp could turn into a tempest that could engulf the country]

To be fair, it has to be said that the mantle of stealing the thunder, the lightening and the fire from no less a towering Zeus-like figure than Gen Musharraf belongs to Asif Zardari. There are those who might consider my attempt at finding some mythical resonance with present events as just that — mythical — opting instead to lay the blame entirely on Musharraf’s own inept handling of certain delicate issues and his misreading the tea leaves when it came to domestic policies.

The tense chess game played out between the two since the elections was anybody’s game. From a perceived stalemate, it culminated finally in a dramatic checkmate.

Gen Musharraf was outwitted in the end not so much because he was outclassed by his opponent or his detractors but more so because he had laid himself bare to the vagaries that the democratic process brings with it, despite having fashioned himself –superficially at least — in the Ataturk mould, a hard act to follow even in the best of times. Mr Musharraf may be forgiven such notions because had he studied and not simply read the life of the Grey Wolf, a fundamental truth would have come through: Ataturk remained a “dictator-reformer” throughout. He never wavered from his single minded objective of snatching his country from the corruption of religious zealots and the chicanery of politicians, and his determination to drag his people into the 20th century.

Mr Musharraf need not have looked that far for inspiration to fulfil his aspirations. The views of the father of his own nation — as articulated by the Quaid in a speech he made to officers of the Staff College at Quetta on June 14, 1948 — would have sufficed. The Quaid’s keynote address on that day struck a significant note when he, as a cogent reminder to them, read out the ‘Officer’s oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the Dominion of Pakistan’ verbatim.

Both Ataturk and Jinnah shared one common belief though: Secularism. Any similarity between the two great leaders, however, must end here.

Ataturk is revered and remembered as a “benevolent dictator”. Mr Jinnah remained a committed constitutionalist till his last breath, taken in a broken down van as he lay abandoned by his trusted lieutenants with no one but his sister and the driver of the vehicle on Karachi’s Mauripur Road.

Lord Listowall, Under Secretary of State for India in the Attlee cabinet, who had interfaced with Mr Jinnah during and up to the announcement of the Partition Plan, said in a filmed interview with me in 1985 that he “rated Mr Jinnah among 20th century leaders — even above de Gaulle.” He went on to elaborate “…that unlike Jinnah, General de Gaulle not only had the support of giants like Roosevelt, Truman and Churchill, but he also had an army. Jinnah had neither! And therein lay his greatness.”

Any casual reader of Greek mythology will be familiar with the legend associated with Prometheus, son of the Titan Lapetus, brother to Atlas, and more famously known for his hostility towards Zeus. Genetics aside, Prometheus is credited with stealing the flame from Mount Olympus and bestowing the gift of fire to mankind, an act that drew the wrath of Zeus. Zeus, as punishment, had Prometheus chained to a mountain ledge to have his “immortal liver” devoured by an eagle.

Prometheus remains an appealing symbol of both raw courage and defiance, the archetypal Greek deity who took on the might of the ruler presiding over the Olympian pantheon.

In the end it took Heracles, another mythical hero, to release Prometheus from his torment.

Now with Zeus gone and Prometheus having stolen his thunder and his flame, are we about to see the torch of leadership being carried forward to the Mount by an artefact created by tragic political circumstance? Or is Pakistan to wait for the coming of a Heracles, better known to us as Hercules?

Mahmud Sipra is a best selling author and an independent columnist. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 28/8/2008

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