A Bloodless End

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"Everything I have done, I have done with Pakistan in my heart," an emotional Pervez Musharraf told the nation as he announced his resignation during a televised address yesterday.

Private television stations broadcast images of people dancing in the street as he read out the announcement. But in the malls and streets of Karachi and Lahore, where I travelled to today, most people were in no mood to celebrate. At Karachi airport, where I heard the announcement while waiting for my flight, Musharraf’s announcement was greeted with stunned silence.

Musharraf cut a tragic, lonesome figure. All of a sudden he was a mere mortal, not the larger than life figure who, John Howard often used to remind us, had escaped several assassination attempts. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Musharraf the man has been sacrificed to maintain the status quo. The Army and key political allies were quick to surmise that supporting Musharraf was no longer politically expedient.

Washington assisted them somewhat in its standard euphemistic manner when it described the impeachment saga as an internal matter for Pakistan to resolve. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was quick to quash rumours that the former General would be retired to the States. There is a chance the Saudis will extend him that privilege, much as they did another dictator, Idi Amin, and Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Prime Minister he deposed eight years ago.

When General Musharraf effortlessly took control of the country by military coup in October 1999 few could have predicted that he would become a US stalwart a mere two years later. And yet in those two years of international isolation Musharraf appeared to have a golden opportunity to challenge the military and feudal stranglehold on his country free from IMF conditional loans or Western security demands that largely saw a complex situation as black and white.

Now that he is at his weakest and incapable of entertaining reforms, the Army and political allies have deserted him. Their new alliance with the Coalition Government has an ominous resonance.

There have been frenetic discussions in Islamabad over the past few days as the Army and political parties wrangled over the terms of Musharraf’s exit. The Coalition Government spent much of last week shoring up support for his impeachment in parliament. It all made for brilliant political theatre. In the first act, each of the provincial assemblies voted in favour of impeachment. The votes were not part of the formal impeachment proceedings in the federal parliament, but they provided symbolic capital. They also bought the Government valuable time to convince the Army and opposition political parties that Musharraf was a lame duck.

The second act was played out last Thursday, Pakistan’s Independence Day, when the Army and Government concluded a quiet agreement not to challenge one another. During the official Independence Day celebrations Prime Minister Gilani praised Army Chief Ashfaq Kiyani, himself also at the function along with the Army’s top brass, foreign diplomats and press. "I want to assure you that Army Chief General Kayani is … highly professional and he is pro-democracy."

President Musharraf opted not to attend. He instead held his own Independence Day celebrations surrounded mainly by family and diehard political supporters. It was a snub largely ignored by the foreign media, but perhaps the symbolism was all too obvious to report. For the first time in the country’s history the President and Prime Minister of Pakistan held separate Independence Day events.

As with all things, Musharraf’s legacy is not cut and dry. It is easy to forget that many celebrated his removal of Nawaz Sharif. Daily life for most was not dramatically altered by the coup but the country was passing through one of its darkest periods. Pakistani soldiers had just been forced to make a humiliating retreat from Kargil, in Indian controlled Kashmir, thanks largely to a covert invasion Musharraf devised that backfired. The country was also facing international isolation for its decision to become a nuclear power. All of that changed after Al Qaeda crashed passenger planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

His decision to give the US unfettered access to Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan from October 2001 onwards brought Musharraf international acclaim and economic and military aid flooded in. Musharraf also liberalised Pakistan’s media rules, enabling a plethora of private news channels to develop. Ironically, it was these same channels that hastened his demise when they broadcast his regime’s brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations throughout last year.

Even his new-found status as benign, secular dictator rested largely on Bush Administration patronage. The relationship transformed Pakistan into the Israel of its region: a militarised society showered with billions in arms with close to no oversight of where the money was being spent. One of the planks of Musharraf’s impeachment is that he squandered billions in military aid given by the US to tackle a rejuvenated Taliban and Al Qaeda. Perhaps only in Pakistan can a politician like the PPP’s Asif Zardari, himself the subject of corruption charges, spearhead allegations of corruption against his own President.

As the post Musharraf era emerges the country will still be gripped by the same fundamental vices. Politics will be dominated by two parties and individuals who inspire little popular confidence. Ordinary Pakistanis are desperately poor and many remain socially or economically under the control of large land and business holders, like Zardari and Sharif, who dominate civilian politics.

Nor will the military’s power change very much. Perhaps the one small consolation is that Musharraf’s resignation is the first time formal, parliamentary proceedings have unseated a military head of state in Pakistan. He has been as bloodlessly removed as he was self-installed. That may well send a cautionary note to Pakistan’s military establishment. Hitherto it has directly or indirectly removed every democratically elected government Pakistan has ever had, with the exception of the heavily rigged 2005 elections won by pro-Musharraf parties.

The most immediate task for the Government now is to stabilise the economy. The moment Musharraf announced his resignation the Karachi Stock Exchange rallied and the rupee gained ground against the Green Back. But with inflation running at an astonishing 20-30 per cent and foreign capital leaving the country at an alarming rate, ordinary Pakistanis are still suffering terribly. Pakistan is not on the brink of collapse. But Musharraf’s departure is proving to be little consolation for ordinary people.

 

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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