Pakistan’s military dictators never go quietly. Field-Marshal Ayub was removed by a three-month long popular insurrection in March 1969. General Yahya Khan destroyed Pakistan before he departed in 1972. General Zia-ul-Haq (the worst of the lot) was blown up in his military plane together with the US Ambassador in 1988. And now General Musharraf is digging his heels. There is a temporary stalemate in Pakistan. The Army is in favour of him going quietly, but is against impeachment. Washington is prepared for him to go, but quietly. And last Friday the chief of Saudi intelligence agency, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, had secretly arrived in Pakistan and held talks with coalition leaders and President Musharraf. He wants a ‘safe exit’ for the president. Sanctuaries in Manhattan, Texas and the Turkish island of Büyükada (Prinkipo) are being actively considered. The General would prefer a large estate in Pakistan, preferably near a golf course, but security considerations alone would make that infeasible.
One way or another he will go soon. Power has been draining away from him for over a year now. Had he departed peacefully when his constitutional term expired in November 2007 he would have won some respect. Instead he imposed a State of Emergency and sacked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In January, the latter wrote an open letter to Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown, Condoleezza Rice and the president of the European Parliament. The letter, which remains unanswered, explained the real reasons for Musharraf’s actions:
At the outset you may be wondering why I have used the words ‘claiming to be the head of state’. That is quite deliberate. General Musharraf’s constitutional term ended on 15 November 2007. His claim to a further term thereafter is the subject of active controversy before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. It was while this claim was under adjudication before a bench of 11 learned judges of the Supreme Court that the general arrested a majority of those judges in addition to me on 3 November 2007. He thus himself subverted the judicial process which remains frozen at that point. Besides arresting the chief justice and judges (can there have been a greater outrage?) he also purported to suspend the constitution and to purge the entire judiciary (even the high courts) of all independent judges. Now only his hand-picked and compliant judges remain willing to ‘validate’ whatever he demands. And all this is also contrary to an express and earlier order passed by the Supreme Court on 3 November 2007.
Now Musharraf will go in disgrace, threatened with impeachment and abandoned by most of his cronies, who grew rich under his rule and are now sidling shamelessly in the direction of the new power-brokers. The country has moved seamlessly from a moth-eaten dictatorship to a moth-eaten democracy. Six months after the old, morally obtuse, political gangs returned to power, the climate has further deteriorated. The widower Bhutto and his men are extremely unpopular. The worm-eaten tongues of long discredited politicians and resurrected civil servants are on daily display. Removing Musharraf, who is even more unpopular, might win the politicians some time, but not for long.
Amidst the hullabaloo there was one hugely diverting moment last week that reminding one of pots and kettles. Asif Zardari, the caretaker-leader of the People’s Party who runs the government and is the second richest man in the country (funds that accrued when his late wife was Prime Minister) accused Musharraf of corruption and siphoning official US funds to private bank accounts. For once the noise of laughter drowned the thunder of money.
Musharraf’s departure will highlight the problems that confront the country, which is in the grip of a food and power crisis that is creating severe problems in every city. Inflation is out of control and was approaching the 15 percent mark in May 2008. Gas (used for cooking in many homes) prices have risen by 30 percent. Wheat, the staple diet of most people has seen a 20 percent price hike since November 2007 and while the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation admits that the world’s food stocks are at record lows there is an additional problem in Pakistan. Too much wheat is being smuggled into Afghanistan to serve the needs of the NATO armies. The poor are the worst hit, but middle-class families are also affected and according to a June 2008 survey, 86 percent of Pakistanis find it increasingly difficult to afford flour on a daily basis, for which they blame their own new government.
Other problems persist. The politicians are weak and remain divided on the restoration of the judges sacked by Musharraf. The Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, is the most respected person in the country. Zardari is reluctant to see him back at the head of the Supreme Court. A possible compromise might be to offer him the Presidency. It would certainly unite the country for a short time.
Over the last fifty years the US has worked mainly with the Pakistan Army. This has been its preferred instrument. Nothing has changed. How long before the military is back at the helm?
Tariq Ali’s latest book, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power will be published on September 15 by Scribner.
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