Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sher View: Counting the General's days

Through interviews given in the presidential palace in Islamabad to carefully selected foreign journalists, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan has been valiantly trying to present himself as a champion of democracy and free media. To underscore that point, the veteran general has been donning not his army uniform but has appeared in mufti – smart charcoal-grey suits, and sober shirts and muted ties. Of course, those televised images were mostly seen by foreign viewers, and not by his fellow 160 million Pakistanis. The indigenous media remain muzzled – which is to be expected in light of the fact that the general has suspended Pakistan's Constitution and pretty much imposed martial law. Pakistani journalists have been kept away from their president.

To his credit, Mr. Musharraf has kept a straight face through these interviews. His phlegmatic visage notwithstanding, he must surely know that his days in office are numbered – that the end to his rule may come as early as this weekend when John Negroponte, the Deputy Secretary of State of the United States, arrives in Islamabad to give President Musharraf the news that Washington is unfastening its embrace of the general. Of course, the encounter will be preceded by some due diligence on Mr. Negroponte's part; in fact, he has already been in touch with elements within the current administration, and with members of the civilian opposition. By the time Secretary Negroponte relays the unwelcome news to President Musharraf, the scenario for political succession would have been tidily worked out.

Such a scenario may include the return to Pakistan of Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister whom Musharraf overthrew in a bloodless coup in 1999 and bundled off to exile to Saudi Arabia. When Mr. Sharif gamely tried to return home some weeks ago, he was not allowed back into his own country. There's little question in my mind that the U.S. has not been talking with Mr. Sharif. Unlike his political opponent Benazir Bhutto – who was prepared to make a Faustian pact with Mr. Musharraf in a power-sharing arrangement under which he would continue as president and she would become prime minister – Mr. Sharif not only wants Mr. Musharraf to relinquish Pakistan's presidency but also leave the army altogether. (The general said yesterday that he may do the latter but not the former.)

My political and business sources tell me that the chancelleries of Europe have been open to the idea of a return by Mr. Sharif. Indeed, some European leaders have privately encouraged the Bush Administration to widen its dialogue with Pakistani constituencies beyond Ms. Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party. They have emphasized that she does not – yet – have support from the street; specifically, Pakistan's students have not rallied to her cause. It's nice to have lawyers agitating in her behalf, but let it be noted that the Pakistan's agents of change historically have been students: Generals Mohammed Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan – both military dictators – were forced to yield power only after protests led and manned by students became so massive that the "voice" of the street could not be ignored.

General Musharraf has shown few signs of acknowledging this history. I can't blame him, of course – after all, who wants to raise intimations of one's own political mortality? What the general did not say in his media interviews has been at least as important – if not more – than the predictable words he uttered. He did say that his political rival Ms. Bhutto was under house arrest to "protect" her from terrorist attacks. But he neglected to mention that Imran Khan, an iconic hero of cricket who turned to politics, was being manhandled and arrested under Pakistan's draconian anti-terrorist measures. Mr. Khan's crime was to lead a student protest against the imposition of the emergency, which is normally the right of any person under a democracy. Could it be that General Musharraf is scared that the charismatic Mr. Khan will be the rallying figure for the country's youthful population?

General Musharraf would do well to study his own nation's history. Almost three decades ago, Benazir Bhutto's father Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto appeared on national television when faced with rising protests against his increasingly dictatorial rule. With arrogance that was barely concealed, he said that the seat of power he sat upon was much stronger than people imagined. In less than a month after that speech, General Zia ul-Haq – then chief of the army – deposed him in a military coup.

As I watched President Musharraf's interviews from my vantage point in Dubai, I could not help but think that while the general talked of saving Pakistan he seemed to be oblivious to the fact that it needs saving from his own authoritarian actions – actions that clearly don't have an agenda beyond political survival. Indeed, his assertion that national elections have been historically held in Pakistan came across as scarcely credible in view of the fact that the polls were conducted under the barrel of the gun and emergency powers of the army. History may not be the general's forte, but surely he must know that one of those elections – in 1988 – was held when General Zia was killed mysteriously in a plane crash. Military dictators don't necessarily retire or fade away in Pakistan. And while I certainly don't wish General Musharraf ill, it wouldn't be hyperbole to say that his termination as president could come with extreme prejudice.

The general is cornered. His tough-talking interviews are not going to placate the protests against him. Perhaps what Imran Khan was trying with the students causes the most concern to the military, and it is not surprising that he would be dubbed a terrorist – not because he was planning terrorist acts but because he was igniting the fuse General Musharraf's army would worry most about.

While the protests continue – accompanied by a chorus of threats from Western capitals about cutting aid – General Musharraf himself must be worried about that his political slippage. The idea of him stepping down is now not only an anathema but would be political suicide from his perspective. Though he has tried to play down the situation by promising elections, and even saying that he would relinquish his army post but remain president, he must dread John Negroponte's forthcoming visit. Under the circumstances, how warm will Mr. Musharraf's hospitality be to his hangman?

President Musharraf could simply ignore Mr. Negroponte's "advice" as the meddling by a foreign power in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state, albeit one that traditionally has been a geopolitical ally of the United States, and one whose partnership is central to Washington's war on global terrorism. Mr. Musharraf rules under the Provisional Constitutional Order – in effect, a military diktat to sanction the emergency – and he and his friends are putting immense pressure of the judges of the provincial High Courts of Pakistan's four provinces to take a new oath of office. This would reinstate the High Courts, allowing the federal government to keep the nation's Supreme Court suspended. This, the general hopes, will give him some legitimacy beyond the dubious provisions of the Provisional Constitutional Order. Reports have been pouring in that each of the judges of the High Courts are visited a number of times a day to pressure them into taking the new oath.

Secretary Negroponte recognizes that there can be no return to even a semblance of normalcy in Pakistan while General Musharraf is still at the helm. This would be the ideal time for one to be fly on the wall of the Pakistan Military Headquarters where the Joint Chief of Staffs must be meeting. It is not beyond imagination to think that pressure from within the army must be mounting on General Musharraf to step down, and allow the smooth transition to civilian rule. Indeed, there's the precedent of General Aslam Beg in 1988 arguing an identical point; it would not be unlikely to see some of the Corp Commanders – the equivalent of the joint chiefs of staff -- trying to impress this position on general Musharraf. This is all the more possible considering that the general has claimed he allows "full democracy and expression of views" by his army officers.

If, as expected, Mr. Negroponte makes it clear to General Musharraf that the US position with respect to him has changed, it would mean not only a change in Pakistan's governance. It would send a strong signal that will allow a change – whether from internal pressures of the army or as a result of America wanting to be an honest broker for democracy – allowing an interim government where a return to democracy will be possible. It is also possible that since two of general's closest advisors are his former military secretary -- now heading the Inter Services Intelligence -- and his wife's relative -- who heads the Military Intelligence -- the chances are he could be fed information he wants to hear rather than what needs to be heard by President Musharraf. In other words, the general and his cabal will all be living in a fool's paradise.

While the general may feel he and his cabal have the situation under control, it is clear that having promising elections but keeping politicians either locked up or in exile can hardly be salutary to President Musharraf's cause. Nor will such continued condition be perceived as a sane act of a man supposedly committed to the fashioning of a democrat system in Pakistan, however daunting the task. Perceptions do matter in the daily life of individuals and institutions, and of nations. Right now, General Musharraf's army is seen as hostage takers of the country rather. President Musharraf would rather have himself and his uniformed caudillo be seen as brave saviors. And while he can dictate governance for the moment, unfortunately for him Mr. Musharraf cannot reshape perceptions that are solidifying that the time has come for him to leave with his dignity – and neck – intact.

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