Political uncertainty as Pakistan turns sixty

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rajab 17, 1428 2007-08-01


by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 6, Rajab, 1428)

Pakistan will turn sixty on August 14, but one would be hard-pressed to detect any sign of maturity in its political or social dealings. Successive rulers—civilian and military—have stunted its growth like a slave permanently shackled in a cage. All have also faithfully served foreign masters, while lining their own pockets at the expense of the country’s impoverished masses.

As usual, there is scheduled to be a colourful military parade on Constitution Avenue in Islamabad on August 14, although there will no doubt be exceptionally tight security. Pakistan’s military dictator, General-President Pervez Musharraf, will prattle in his tortuous English about the lofty principles established by the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, popularly referred to as Quaid-eAzam (the great leader), when the country was carved out of British India. Although he was thoroughly westernized and secular in outlook, Jinnah was at least an honest and upright man, unlike most of those who have followed him at the helm of Pakistan’s affairs. But one thing that Musharraf will not mention is that, in Jinnah’s conception, there was no room for military dictators inPakistan. In fact, Muslims in the British Indian military failed totally to protect Indian Muslims people while marauding Hindu and Sikh gangs butchered more than a million Muslims during partition. Jinnah once described Mustafa Kemal as his hero; and like the military establishment in Turkey, Musharraf seems to think that it is his mission to impose his brand of “enlightened moderation” on the Muslims of Pakistan, through the barrel of the gun if necessary.

Every bully projects an image of meanness to deter would-be challengers from encroaching on his turf. Since seizing power in the military coup led by Generals Mahmoud Ahmed and Muhammad Aziz in October 1999, Musharraf has defied every domestic political challenger, while currying favour with the US, whose support he clearly regards as more important. He joined the US’s war on the Taliban in Afghanistan, reversing a long-standing Pakistani policy, without consulting anyone. Such unilateral decision-making has exposed the country’s western front to grave dangers where none existed before. Pakistan’s two western provinces—the North WestFrontier Province and Baluchistan—have been in turmoil ever since. The government’s attempts to control these areas by the sort of military strategy used by both the Russians and the US in Afghanistan, have resulted in armed insurrections raging in both provinces. While Musharraf and his cronies have been rewarded by the US for their efforts in “fighting terrorism”, their policies have left the country in a far more precarious state than when he came to power nearly eight years ago.

The wars against the people of Baluchistan and North and South Waziristan have now spread to other places as well: Swat, Bajaur,Kohat, Dera Ismail Khan and even Islamabad, where hundreds of students, many of them children, were killed when Musharraf’scommandos stormed the Lal Masjid complex. This exposed tactics that had previously only been used far from the public gaze, and aroused the wrath of people in ways never seen before, especially in the volatile NWFP. The ferocious tribesmen of NorthWaziristan, already angered by the government’s duplicity, particularly its failure to abide by the agreement of September 2006, responded by attacking military checkposts. Scores of paramilitary personnel from the Frontier Constabulary and Khasadars, whose recruits traditionally come from the tribal areas, have been killed, and Miranshah, North Waziristan’s main city, has become a no-go area for the military.

The two Waziristans and Baluchistan are not the only areas on fire. In a move than can only be described as sheer stupidity,Musharraf tried to force the country’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, out for his own political reasons. For once, a judge stood up to a bullying general and changed the course of history in Pakistan. The chief justice’s defiance on that fateful day in March provoked some very unusual responses. Protests initially launched by the legal community attracted the support of the Pakistani masses. Millions came out in sweltering heat to welcome the chief justice or just to catch a glimpse of him. Whatever hisfaults, and he is not without them, the chief justice vindicated himself by one small gesture of defiance that touched the hearts of millions who are fed up with the strong-arm tactics of the men in khaki. Never before has the military been so alienated from the people as it is today.

The professional politicians, who always look for opportunities to curry favour with whosoever is in power, much like flies swarming rotten fruit, evidently realize the ground is shifting from underneath Musharraf’s feet. Being of no fixed ideological address, they are now trying to distance themselves from him. A major element of the months-long campaign in support of the Chief Justice was the cold-blooded murder of 40 people by government-backed MQM thugs in Karachi on May 12. While huge crowds greeted him around the country, in Karachi he was prevented from addressing the Karachi Bar Association when MQM goons trapped him in the airport for 12 hours. While the police and rangers did little more than watch, the MQM was given a free hand to murder people. So pleased was Musharraf with the chief justice’s “failure” in Karachi that he celebrated his victory with a rally of his own in Islamabad, at which he boasted that the government had not yet shown its full might and could “fix” anyone who challenged its writ. There was singing and dancing as the rent-a-crowd bussed in from distant towns and villages feasted on free food.

The Supreme Court verdict on July 20 has knocked the wind out of Musharraf’s sails and changed the political landscape radically. By dismissing all charges against the Chief Justice, the Supreme Court gave Musharraf a sharp slap on the face. His hopes to get himself re-elected as president by the existing assemblies, before elections that his supporters are expected to lose, now appears doomed. Although Pakistani military dictators have never been much constrained by constitutional niceties, the present Supreme Court is a radically different institution. Led by an activist Chief Justice with a proven public profile and support, it is now far more likely than ever before to stand up to the bullies in uniform. This has aroused much hope among the masses. While the Supreme Court has no coercive power to enforce its decisions—Musharraf might quote Josef Stalin’s infamous quip, “how many divisions does the pope have?”—the fact is that the regime will not be able to defy it without arousing a strong public reaction. There are likely to be court challenges if Musharraf attempts to retain the presidency without relinquishing the post of army chief. Munir A. Malik, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, announced on July 25 that the lawyers would launch court challenges if Musharrafattempted to get himself elected through the present assemblies or refuse to relinquish his army post. Add to that the cases of the hundreds of people who have disappeared during the last few years, almost all of them abducted by operatives of the intelligence agencies, which the courts are also likely to pursue now that the Chief Justice is back in his job, and it is clear that Musharraf has lost what little moral capital he may ever have had.

Few now doubt that Musharraf’s days are numbered, but the question on everyone’s mind is what will happen after he is removed from office. The options available are all equally unpalatable. Seeing Musharraf replaced by the likes of Benazir Bhutto or NawazSharif would be little reward for the sacrifices of so many people. This is the dilemma facing the people of Pakistan, given the failure of local Islamic movements to provide a realistic alternative in the short term.

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