Asia

Mamnoon Hussain: Pakistan's 'invisible' president

Banners welcoming and congratulating incoming Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain in Islamabad on September 9, 2013 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mamnoon Hussain was sworn in as president in September, but little has been seen of him since

His presidency is only six months old but people in Pakistan are already making jokes about the whereabouts of Mamnoon Hussain.

Someone even tweeted a fictitious advertisement asking for information about him.

But the 73-year-old is doggedly maintaining a low profile as he continues his entirely uncontroversial presidency.

For Pakistan - that makes a change because Mr Hussain could not be more unlike the last two incumbents. Although the office of president is merely ceremonial now and all executive powers rest with the prime minister, they hogged the headlines.

Asif Ali Zardari, his immediate predecessor, was constantly in the eye of the storm throughout his time in charge. From allegations of off-shore bank accounts to using the presidency as a platform for political activities, the courts and the media kept him on his toes.

Before him, former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf was in the limelight for all the powers he amassed in the presidency.

But Mr Hussain is head of state in name only. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif nominated the low-profile businessman from Karachi, many believed he had been rewarded for his unwavering loyalty.

Mamnoon Hussain's liking for the Sharifs was evident when I met him recently. But asked whether he gets to meet the prime minister often these days, he said sadly he didn't.

"Only once a month I get to see him. The prime minister is very busy these days so can't come to see me, whereas protocol stops me from going to his place."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Hussain (L) is known for his loyalty to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

And he feels the palace - one of the grandest buildings in cash-strapped Pakistan - is more of a cage.

"I can't go out for shopping as I used to do," the president told me across a table decorated with white flowers. "I asked for a visit to the tribal regions, but my security colleagues said I can't at the moment because of the security concerns."

The president is constitutionally responsible for the militancy-hit Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan.

His predecessor was criticised for not setting foot in the tribal areas during his five-year term. But Mamnoon Hussain already has a couple of targets.

First, he wants to make the tribal areas free of the crippling disease polio. "My fear is that if we don't take remedial steps to control polio in the tribal areas we will be faced with international sanctions," he says, looking worried.

He says development is also urgently needed in the tribal areas. But on another critical issue - that of fighting militancy in the tribal regions - he had little or nothing to say.

"Though I am not completely in the picture and not consulted, I think the Nawaz government will from now on follow a carrot-and-stick policy.

"Negotiate with those who wish to talk - and take action against those who create mischief."

A couple of years back, I had a similar lunch with Asif Zardari.

By comparison, Mamnoon Hussaim seemed relatively relaxed in the palace's peaceful environment.

While Mr Zardari restricted his movements to a couple of rooms, the current president and his family have spread themselves over the whole of the residential part of the palace.

Mr Zardari received us in his office - while Mr Hussain ate with me in a separate dining room.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Hussain, who occupies a purely ceremonial role, is chancellor of 17 universities

President Hussain comes with little political baggage.

He was governor of Sindh province for a mere five months in 1999, but has been a staunch Muslim Leaguer from day one. Through thick and thin, Mamnoon Hussain stood by Nawaz Sharif.

He agrees the prime minister seems to have stopped smiling these days because of the huge challenges he faces.

"I was surprised that in a recent five-and-a-half hour long meeting, he did not smile for a second. Though he is found of making jokes to ease tensions in such meetings."

But for Mr Hussain, there's no such stress in daily life.

He concedes his ambitions will have to "wait till the outcome of the government's carrot and stick policy on Taliban is clear".

And in the meantime, he has people to meet and hands to shake.

After all, he is chancellor of 17 universities and that keeps him busy attending events and meeting dignitaries - well away from frontline politics in his volatile country.

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