Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 December 2007
Issue No. 874
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Saving the nation

President Musharraf's latest moves were taken in the name of "political reconciliation" -- they have brought political polarisation, writes Graham Usher in Islamabad

Last week Pervez Musharraf stood down as Pakistan's army chief of staff and became a civilian president, fulfilling a pledge he had made first in 2003 but repeatedly betrayed. In a televised address to the nation on 29 November -- dressed in a black tunic rather than the usual brackish brown khaki -- he said the martial law he imposed last month would be lifted on 16 December and that "free, fair and transparent" elections would be held on 8 January 2008. These were promises he had made to George Bush and Gordon Brown, his two staunchest foreign friends.

He even tendered a peace pipe to two former prime ministers he had once sought to banish. "Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have come back, and a level playing field has been given," he said, through gritted teeth.

Lawyers in Lahore took to the streets in protest, demanding the reinstatement of Supreme Court judges Musharraf had sacked under the emergency. An alliance of six opposition parties, including Sharif's Muslim League, said it would boycott the January poll. Bhutto said while her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) would participate in the elections, it would do so "under protest". The more the president comes as a saviour the more he divides. It was always so.

Musharraf seized power in a coup eight years ago to "save the nation". In his televised speech he said he had instituted emergency rule for the second time in his rule to "save the nation". Analysts pondered his legacy as Pakistan's president in uniform. They could agree only on one thing: it would have been better had it finished earlier.

In a reign wracked by controversy few would dispute Musharraf's most fateful decision -- throwing the weight of the Pakistan army behind the American "war on terror" following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

This not only cleansed Pakistan's reputation as a nuclear-armed pariah in league with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It turned around an economy on the brink of self-destruction via massive inflows of US aid. Perhaps he saved the nation. US assistant secretary of state, Richard Armitage, warned that had he not "cooperated" after 9/11 Pakistan would have been "bombed back to the stone-age".

There were successes. He pursued a genuine peace process with India, raising relations between the two South Asian adversaries to their most benign ever. He also made an effort to modulate Pakistan's official ideology of conservative jihadist Islam to a more liberal, "enlightened" strain, with a young, independent media being the beneficiary. But the flaw was always Musharraf's conviction that "the army was the only patriotic force capable of ensuring that Pakistan would stay strong, stable and prosperous," says analyst and ex- ambassador Tarik Fatemi. This not only bred contempt of civilian politics, but it oversaw a process in which the military become entrenched in every sphere of governance and the economy. It was a dominance that would be resisted, most shockingly by the judiciary, historically the army's handmaiden.

In March Musharraf tried to sack Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry, triggering the worse crisis of his rule and mass demands that he and the army withdraw from politics. On 3 November he declared martial law, ostensibly to tackle Islamic militancy, but actually to purge a Supreme Court that was about to rule illegal his presidential "election" in October.

And the contradiction inherent in Musharraf's leadership became plain to all, including Bush and Brown: never had the Pakistani army been so powerful, and never had its power been so resented by Pakistan's 160 million people.

Will transmutation from military ruler to civilian president alter this? It depends on his relations with the new army chief and next prime minister: "This is the troika -- the new power centre in Pakistani politics," says analyst Hassan Askari-Rivzi.

Relations with Kiani will likely be smooth. He is a protégé of Musharraf. He is also supportive of American-driven policies against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, particularly in Pakistan's restive frontier regions with Afghanistan. But he believes such policies "must be politically acceptable to our people," says General Ahmed Shujaz Pasha, an aide. That's a hard circle to square: polls show 80 per cent of Pakistanis are opposed to American foreign policies, especially in Afghanistan.

Relations with the next prime minister may be more turbulent. If Bhutto ignores calls for boycott and the PPP takes part in the elections, she may revive her tryst with Musharraf. She would back him as president while he smoothes the way for her to become prime minister for a third time. This will please the Americans. But it will divide Pakistan politics society along the facile Washington fault-line of "moderate" versus "extremist", lending legitimacy to its anti- American forces, above all, the Taliban.

And if the opposition do boycott, they will rob the elections of what little credibility they have, domestically and internationally. What will Musharraf do then? "Save the nation"? The problem, answers analyst, Shafqat Mahmoud, is that Musharraf "still sees himself as the solution. To most Pakistanis he's part of the problem".

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