Musharraf Divides an Already Polarized Nation

Gulf News November 6, 2007

While effectively placing Pakistan under martial law last weekend, General Pervez Musharraf used words similar to those used by another military ruler, General Yahya Khan, when he ordered the 1971 crackdown against civilians in erstwhile East Pakistan. Musharraf said that he had imposed martial law “for the good of Pakistan” and “to preserve the unity of Pakistan” – the exact words used by Yahya Khan 36 years ago.

Like Yahya Khan he insisted that the country faced a “critical and dangerous situation” and argued that “extremists are becoming confident” and “security forces demoralised”. And as if quoting directly from Yahya Khan, Musharraf said: “It would have been suicidal not to act.”

For those who remember Pakistani history, Yahya Khan’s decision to ignore the results of the December 1970 elections and instead to use force against popular political forces led, nine months later, to the transformation of East Pakistan into the independent state of Bangladesh.

Things might not turn that dire this time around but Musharraf has risked dividing an already polarised nation further.

His decision to suspend the constitution, shut down the independent media and arrest everyone he does not like, whether liberal or Islamist, has cancelled his self-cultivated image as a benign authoritarian ruler at a time when his need for a positive aura was greater than when he first took power.

It might be too late for Musharraf to be able to act sufficiently harshly to frighten Pakistan’s civil society and political opposition into submission.

It is apparent to most people that Musharraf’s action was motivated by his desire to keep himself and his civilian cronies in power and had little to do with saving Pakistan from terrorism or internal chaos. If Musharraf’s position was not threatened by the prospect of an adverse Supreme Court judgment against him holding the dual offices of president and chief of army staff, he would most likely not have acted. Musharraf has been in charge for eight years and cannot blame anyone else for anarchy in the country. If there is internal chaos in Pakistan today, it is of Musharraf’s making.

Bad advice

Ironically, Musharraf has turned to the army and his position as army chief to bail him out of a crisis created by the bad advice of his civilian advisers. Even now, the virtual imposition of martial law appears to be aimed at protecting the interests of the unelectable Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and the King’s Party, Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q).

Musharraf’s civilian allies are incapable of winning a free and fair election and have resented the prospect of any arrangement that allows Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to contest, and defeat them at the polls.

Bhutto has pointed out the incongruence of Musharraf’s decision to purge the Supreme Court while keeping the parliament, provincial legislatures and ministries in their position. How can legislatures and ministries continue to exist when “the constitution under which they were created has itself been suspended?” she asked.

But for Musharraf the weakness of his argument hardly matters. His actions reflect the calculation that he can get away with anything as long as the Pakistan army remains behind him.

Musharraf also seems to assume that the international community would not go beyond ritual condemnation of his decision. But the US could reach the conclusion that Musharraf is too distracted with domestic politics to play an effective role in fighting terrorism any longer and the army might feel that it is getting blamed for one man’s power play.

Washington does not need or want anti-Musharraf sentiment to result in a fresh wave of anti-Americanism in Pakistan that further fuels terrorism. The more Musharraf has to repress critics and political opponents at home, the less Pakistan will be able to fight terrorism.

Pakistan is being described by some around the world as “the most dangerous country” on Earth. That characterisation can be contested by Pakistanis only if Pakistan moves along the path of certainty. A sudden suspension of the constitution, and images of mistreatment of judges and lawyers, add to the doubts already being expressed about Pakistan’s future.