Perhaps inspired by his counterparts in Burma, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan has proceeded to clamp down on political dissent like never before. What began as a knee jerk reaction to increasing disenchantment with his regime has spiraled towards ever more draconian measures that have completely erased any remaining claim Musharraf may have to being called a moderate.
Martial law has been imposed in all but name. All major political and civil opponents have been imprisoned or gagged for varying stretches. This includes the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Asma Jehangir and Benazir Bhutto, a former democratically elected Prime Minister who until recently had been in discussions with Musharraf over a possible future power sharing arrangement. Another politician, former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan, who had been on the run from authorities since last week, was seized during a protest in Lahore.
On Sunday, 11 November, Pakistan’s Attorney General, Malik Mohammed Qayyum, announced that civilians may even be tried before military courts on a range of charges from treason to inciting public unrest. All private television stations domestic and foreign have been banned while the Musharraf-controlled public broadcaster PBC remains on air.
Pakistan ‘s Supreme Court, which had been considering whether Musharraf could lawfully stand for re-election as President while remaining Chief of the Army, has been suspended indefinitely. Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the deposed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (whom I wrote about earlier) even had his mobile phone cut while he addressed a rally in the nation’s capital. If ever a student of history needed an example of a despot’s desperation, then this is it.
Musharraf is perhaps one of history’s more innocuous dictators. As an individual, he is no General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq the semi-literate colonel-cum-general who, in 1977, deposed and eventually executed the incumbent Prime Minister (Benazir Bhutto’s father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto). Zia fostered Pakistan’s then fledgling jihadi militants with the support of the United States and Saudi Arabia. In contrast, Musharraf is a deeply secular man. Schooled in the British military tradition, he is known to enjoy the odd shot of malt whisky.
Lust for power is an essential ingredient in dictatorship. Pretty soon a dictator begins to believe that society cannot adequately function without his overbearing presence at the top of the political hill. Such a rationalisation trumps all other rational considerations, to the extent that dictators often act against their own self interest.
Musharraf is no different. In his address to the nation after midnight 3 November announcing a ‘State of Emergency,’ Musharraf justified his actions on the basis that an increase in his powers and a clampdown on dissent was a matter of Pakistan’s survival. ‘I have gone beyond my personal benefit in making this decision,’ he explained.
Ironically, in initiating these draconian political conditions, Musharraf has effectively increased the prospect of his ignominious removal.
The General has only been able to survive as long as he has because of the abject quality of the opposition in Pakistan, and because of the political and economic patronage of the United States.
Previous regimes in Pakistan, ostensibly democratic or otherwise, have been so incompetent and blindly corrupt that even the most elemental aspects of State management, such as stabilising the economy or tackling the country’s high levels of poverty and class divisions, have seemed like impossible acts of genius. There has long been an expectation in Pakistan that an incumbent will siphon off the country’s wealth into his or her bank accounts, acquire companies, property and land, and eventually retire to an estate in the United Kingdom, France or the Gulf.
Once Musharraf pledged his support for the USA’s so-called War on Terror his regime experienced an unprecedented upsurge in American patronage making Pakistan the third largest recipient of American military aid after Israel and Egypt.
In this climate, the fact that Musharraf was able to improve the country’s economic situation and curry international support was seen for some time as a powerful case for his continued presence. But even at the height of his popularity he was expected to eventually subside.
Most observers outside Pakistan (and Musharraf himself) underestimated the extent of popular support for a return to democracy which began to surface following Musharraf’s attempt to remove the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Chaudhry in March this year. When that was met by the largest protests in decades, key Musharraf allies such as the USA and the UK were forced to condemn his actions and the Chief Justice was eventually reinstated.
Critically, on that occasion as now, these key allies reiterated their support for Musharraf with little or no apparent appreciation for the lack of support he had within the country. In response to the present situation, President George W Bush sang the familiar refrain: ‘President Musharraf has been a strong fighter against extremists and radicals’ with whom the United States must ‘continue to work.’
In the West, Pakistan, like so many other non-Western States, is seen through the familiar prism of ‘international security’. The simple premise is that Pakistan is volatile and Musharraf is a secular, educated man who keeps the extremists away from the country’s nuclear arsenal. Pakistan may or may not deserve democracy, so the reasoning goes, but whatever else is true, the US-led ‘international community’ needs a strong man to rein in the extremists. This understanding of the situation is deeply flawed.
When Musharraf announced the present ‘State of Emergency’ he cited the upsurge in militancy throughout the country. Hitherto, this militancy had been largely restricted to the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, where an upsurge of violence has seen many police and soldiers killed or kidnapped and a program of ‘Talibanisation’ has commenced in earnest.
In recent months there has been an increase in militant attacks in more urbanised parts of Pakistan such as Karachi and in rural areas like Swat an area in the lower Himalayas famed among honeymooners for its natural beauty and Sargodha in the Punjab. Until the recent unrest neither Swat nor Sargodha had a history of militant violence.
These attacks may confirm the importance of supporting Musharraf in the minds of Western leaders. But, ironically, the clampdown on popular, secular political movements has actually facilitated the cause of the militants. By cracking down on peaceful forms of protest, the media, and the judiciary, Musharraf has created a space in which the only type of anti-government expression available is the violence that militant groups are especially adept at.
At the same time, while the Musharraf regime has obtained literally billions in aid from the US over the past six years (and much smaller, but still sizeable amounts from the UK and the EU), the present civil and militant unrest demonstrates how poorly it has been invested.
When Musharraf last visited Australia a colleague of mine in the Australian Government preparing briefing for the Australian Prime Minister remarked that Howard would literally glaze over in admiration for Musharraf. To Howard, my friend explained, Musharraf was a gallant old warrior holding the fort against the terrorist menace rising from the tribal hills.
This, and Musharraf’s relative eloquence and capacity to talk the ‘war on terrorism’ talk, has meant that his regime has been accepted relatively uncritically by Western governments.
Whether or not the present situation will change this sentiment is unclear. What is clear is that these same governments must now condemn Musharraf for what he is: a dictator with whom we have no business doing business.
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