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Pervez Musharraf’s desperate gamble

About the author
Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

Pervez Musharraf's second coup, or "emergency plus" as it is being referred to in the Pakistani media, was widely expected by the time it was finally announced on the afternoon of 3 November 2007. Musharraf's limited options mean that it is being seen here as the last roll of the dice by a desperate gambler.

In his midnight address to the nation on state TV, Musharraf came across as nervous and hesitant, far from the image of the straight-talking commando he has successfully maintained over his last eight years as the leader of Pakistan. A significant moment came when, switching from Urdu to English, he appealed for understanding and patience from the international community. This, and his quoting of Abraham Lincoln to justify his suspension of the constitution, made plain that his message was intended for Washington.

For the moment, if anybody can influence Musharraf, it is George W Bush, the Pakistani dictator's biggest supporter in the west. Since 9/11, the United States has pumped $10 billion into Pakistan, most of the money going straight to the military. Despite this largesse, many Americans are dissatisfied with the Pakistani army's performance in the field against the Taliban, and their tribal hosts and allies along the turbulent border with Afghanistan. There are thus many in the Democrat-controlled Congress who would like to see a suspension of aid to Pakistan until Musharraf restores democracy.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan. Among Irfan Husain's articles in openDemocracy:

"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

"The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)

"The Baluchi insurrection" (4 September 2006)

"How democracy works in Pakistan" (29 September 2006)

"Pervez Musharraf: in a vice" (6 November 2006)

"Pakistan: zero-sum games people play" (6 December 2006)

"Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails" (29 April 2007)

"Pakistan: the enemy within" (30 July 2007)

"Pakistan's poker-game" (14 September 2007)

However, the Pentagon is more pragmatic: in a Los Angeles Times story of 4 November 2007, an unnamed Pentagon official is quoted as saying that "the problem is we have a war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan is a coalition partner... We have troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and it's hard to have a good outcome if Pakistan is not cooperating." The report goes on to quote Paul Pillar, a former CIA counter-terrorism official, as saying that the United States is likely to continue to "scold Musharraf but not impose significant sanctions" (see Greg Miller, "U.S. unlikely to halt Pakistan aid", 4 November 2007).

And this, for now, is the bottom line. Without American pressure, Musharraf is likely to continue his crackdown. Within the first twenty-four hours of his emergency rule, the police arrested over a thousand lawyers, journalists and political activists across the country. The leading human-rights lawyer and United Nations rapporteur Asma Jahangir has been placed under detention for three months, together with the secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and well-known journalist IA Rehman.

Around seventy human-rights activists were detained when they gathered at the HRCP office in Lahore for a protest meeting. When asked to sign an affidavit that they would not indulge in "anti-state" activities again, they all refused and spent the night in jail.

The real target

Meanwhile, back in the mountains where Pakistan's real problems lie, the stand-off with the militants continues. Musharraf named the rising tide of jihadi militancy as one of the reasons for the imposition of martial law. But he did not elaborate on how this would give him more powers: as army chief and head of state, there had been nothing to stop him from acting against the militants who have virtually taken over large swathes of the country.

In Swat, until recently a stunningly beautiful, peaceful and relatively prosperous valley in the northwest of Pakistan, the militants have carried out a series of violent acts. These include blowing up a large rock carving of the Buddha; attacking video shops; and beheading several paramilitary troops in public. Led by Mullah Fazlullah, a 28-year old cleric who is also known as "Mullah Radio" for his hate-filled FM broadcasts, the movement has caused thousands of locals to flee the valley.

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:

Maruf Khwaja, "The Islamisation of Pakistan" (12 April 2006)

Iftikhar H Malik, "Musharraf's predicament, Pakistan's agony" (5 September 2006)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan on edge" (25 September 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (16 May 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan signals red" (5 July 2007 )

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's peril" (19 July 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)
For the last two years, Musharraf and his government have stood by silently while the militants tightened their hold over Swat. People are asking what he can do now to dislodge them that he could not have done earlier.

It is clear that for the time being, no street movement will gather enough momentum to topple Musharraf. The only party that could conceivably cause a problem in the short run is Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. But given her tacit understanding with Musharraf, as well as her reluctance to upset Washington, it is unlikely that Bhutto will launch a street movement. For the time being, she will limit herself to verbal denunciations of the crackdown, while restraining her party workers.

It is notable that Musharraf has targeted the community that has caused him his biggest headache - and threatened to do so again: the legal profession. Musharraf had a number of senior lawyers arrested on 3 November, to crush any possible revival of the kind of movement lawyers had launched to reinstate the chief justice of the supreme court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, following his suspension on 9 March 2007. At the head of the list is Aitzaz Ahsan, the barrister who defended the chief justice and who led the lawyers' movement. The police have also cracked down heavily on the legal fraternity across the country. Lawyers protesting in the Lahore high court were savagely beaten, and dozens arrested. The police broke in to Karachi's Sindh high court, and dragged off over fifty lawyers to jail.

The general in his labyrinth

Indeed, the targeting of Pakistan's legal profession is a key to the crisis and to Musharraf's strategy. In essence, the extraordinary step Musharraf has taken was aimed at pre-empting the supreme-court decision on his right to contest the presidential elections held on 6 October 2007. For days, rumours had been circulating that the court was going to declare Musharraf's re-election illegal, precipitating a constitutional crisis. In the event, he has effectively cleansed the higher judiciary of all judges who might question his rule.

The tactic used was to issue a "provisional constitutional order", and asking selected judges to take a fresh oath on it. A large number of supreme-court and high-court judges refused to do so, and have thus been removed from their respective benches.

Since he enacted his emergency, all the private TV news channels, including foreign ones like the BBC, al-Jazeera and CNN, have been off the air. Sweeping rules to muzzle the electronic and print media have been announced. Musharraf must have taken note of the fact that during the lawyers' movement, private TV channels had been instrumental in rallying support for the cause. This time around, Musharraf does not want his actions questioned live by panellists on TV. In a country with a 50% literacy rate, radio and TV have far more reach and influence than do the country's feisty newspapers.

So for the time being, Pervez Musharraf appears to have pulled off his coup with relatively little opposition. But the problems he has created for himself are unlikely to go away. The prime minister Shaukat Aziz has said that the new dispensation will last for as long as necessary; attorney-general Malik Abdul Qayyum suggests that elections may yet take place by mid-January 2008. In any event, democracy seems no part of Musharraf's plans. Meanwhile, rising prices, increasing militancy and growing international pressure might be more effective in forcing Musharraf to restore normalcy than internal political opposition.


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