Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 August 2007
Issue No. 858
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Musharraf's last straw

The consideration of a state of emergency has compounded Pakistan's crisis,reports Graham Usher from Islamabad

Click to view caption
In spite of the palpable tensions between the two leaders, the Pakistani and Afghan presidents made an effort to patch up their differences. As close American allies, they appear sitting small in the antique Afghan chairs

Even in the merry-go-round of Pakistani politics Thursday 9 August was a whirl. In the morning Islamabad residents awoke to newspaper headlines warning that a state of emergency in Pakistan "looms on the horizon". By afternoon the head of Pakistan's ruling Muslim League -- and main fount of the emergency rumours -- Chaudhry Shajaat Hussein told reporters "there is no possibility of an emergency."

The rumour mill began churning on Wednesday. Pakistan's president-general, Pervez Musharraf announced he would not be attending a grand tribal council or jirga in Kabul aimed at quelling the Taliban insurgency on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The jirga had been the brainchild of George W Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Musharraf's absence was read initially as a snub. Pakistan's military ruler has been angered by recent American and Afghan criticism that his army was not doing enough against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the borderlands. He has been outraged by American threats to act unilaterally inside Pakistan should the army be found wanting.

But Musharraf had grounds for staying in Islamabad. He was chairing meetings of Pakistan's top military on whether or not to declare a state of emergency. "Given the external and internal threats we are facing, especially on the border areas, the possibility of an emergency cannot be ruled out," Minister of State for Information Tariq Azim, told Pakistan's GEO television.

Aside from the insurgency, Azim listed other "threats": there was a possible US operation against Al-Qaeda in the tribal areas, he said, as well as a wave of suicide bombings that have rocked Pakistan since commandos stormed Islamabad's pro-Taliban Red Mosque last month. It says much about the government's current position that barely a commentator took Azim seriously.

"You don't need a state of emergency to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the tribal areas. The army already has emergency powers there," says military analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. "Any state of emergency in Pakistan is irrelevant to the 'war on terror'. It has everything to do with Musharraf preserving his hold on power."

Earlier this month Musharraf said he intended to remain army chief of staff and be elected Pakistan president by existing assemblies rigged in his favour. Such a move would almost certainly meet constitutional challenges from Pakistan's Supreme Court. "And Musharraf is scared of the judiciary," says Rizvi.

It's clear why. In March, Musharraf suspended Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikar Mohammed Chaudhry, because he could not be relied on to approve the general's desire to be army chief and re- elected president. That dismissal snowballed into a mass campaign against military rule in Pakistan. In July the Supreme Court reinstated Chaudhry as Pakistan's chief justice. "Musharraf is now convinced he cannot avoid adverse judgments from the Supreme Court without special, emergency powers," says Rizvi.

And yet, having raised the spectre of emergency rule, government spokesmen then spent much of their energy trying to douse the prospect. One reason was the uniformly negative domestic reaction, with opposition parties of all shades outraged that Musharraf would consider suspending the rights of 160 million people solely to clear his way to another five-year presidency. "If Musharraf declares an emergency, thousands will take to the streets. The Supreme Court will also strike it down," says ex-Pakistan foreign minister and opposition leader, Sardar Asef Ahmad Ali.

There was also the advice from friends. On 9 August US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, twice called Musharraf on the telephone. She reportedly expressed American displeasure at his failure to show at the Kabul jirga. She also reminded him of his "promise" to hold free and fair elections later this year. A state of emergency would suspend parliamentary elections for a year, together with rights of movement, assembly and association.

Already under criticism from a Democrat-controlled Congress for lavishly backing Pakistan, the last thing the Bush administration wants is an ally that not only is a dictatorship but looks and acts like one. The mea culpa Federal Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani read to end the "emergency" could have been drafted in Washington.

"There's no state of emergency being imposed in Pakistan," he said. "There was pressure on the president due to the situation in the country. But he's committed to furthering democracy. He was ill advised by some people. He has decided against declaring an emergency. Elections are the president's priority."

Three days later Musharraf duly attended the jirga. He vowed that Pakistan would "not allow sanctuaries or training centres for terrorists" on Pakistani soil. But 100 tribal leaders from Pakistan's borderlands did not attend. They said there was no point having a jirga without the Taliban. They know the Taliban controls swathes of territory in Pakistan's tribal areas and that their hold deepens with every military operation.

Musharraf's volt-face on the jirga and the state of emergency won him plaudits from the US and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But his stock among ordinary Pakistanis is rock bottom, says human rights lawyer, Asma Jahangir. "There is a sense his time is up. He should make an honourable exit rather than increase polarisation in Pakistan. There is not single person who believes a [state of] emergency is necessary for this country. They see it for what it is -- the last straw a dictator clings to."

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