New Internationalist

Musharraf’s mess

Issue 406

Martial law in Pakistan is aimed at only some of the President’s opponents. Ayesha Ijaz Khan explains.

Thirty years ago an Islamic Revolution besieged Iran because a despot was propped up against the will of the people. Had the Shah not been supported by Western powers against the nationalist Mossadegh, perhaps the ayatollahs would never have been able to cash in on the revolutionary tide. Nuclear-armed Pakistan today is in a far more precarious position.

The Frontier has become a haven for radical forces so extreme in their thinking that they regard even the ruling religious alliance as infidels

On 3 November Musharraf imposed a ‘state of emergency’, essentially martial law, leading to a brutal crackdown on independent media and mass arrests of lawyers, judges, human rights activists, teachers and students. Curiously, for the first five days after the imposition of martial law there was no concrete condemnation from the US Administration. Speaking partially in English, Musharraf had explained that extremists were destabilizing Pakistan and thus the emergency was warranted. As former US Ambassador to Pakistan, Teresita Schaffer, correctly noted, however, that only two of the nine points in his address attacked the extremists, while seven were directed towards the judiciary.

The Supreme Court was considering a challenge to Musharraf’s dual office as both President and Chief of Army Staff. They had yet to deliver a verdict, but the bold remarks of the newly empowered judiciary and unprecedented questioning of high-ranking officials of the police, army and intelligence services in several other cases led to the pre-emptive strike. The media was blacked out and as judges refused to take the oath under the new Provisional Constitutional Order, and lawyers protested and hesitated to appear before the kangaroo courts being set up, law enforcement unleashed a reign of terror and torture against the most liberal and progressive segments of society.

Extreme Frontier

Meanwhile, Mullah Fazlullah was free to broadcast his firebrand and distorted version of Islam from an FM radio station in Swat, resulting in attacks on music shops, women and tourist resorts. Secular-minded civilians have time and again complained of Musharraf’s tentative commitment to eradicating extremism from Pakistan. In 2002 he entered into a pact with the religious alliance, permitting them to form a government in the Frontier Province as long as they voted for the notorious Seventeenth Amendment, allowing him to retain the office of President and Chief of Army Staff for five years. As a result, the Frontier has become a haven for radical forces so extreme in their thinking that they regard even the ruling religious alliance as infidels. Initially confined to the tribal belt, these militants have now infiltrated settled areas like the scenic valley of Swat. Musharraf, however, is inclined to approach them timidly, with diplomacy, dialogue and barter (trading captured soldiers for militants), reserving brute force for moderate members of the civil society.

Yet Musharraf has done a brilliant job of selling himself in the West as the great secular saviour. He has prolonged his illicit rule by consistently playing both sides, using the ‘war on terror’ to scare international powerhouses while secretly entering into deals and placating militants with concessions. On the other hand, he has shown no mercy in eradicating democratic opposition to his government. Soon after he took over, both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, leaders of the two mainstream political parties, were safely in exile. Corruption charges against both were frequently advertised.

Nevertheless, Musharraf reluctantly agreed to a Washington-brokered power deal earlier this year which would retain him as a civilian President and allow Ms Bhutto to become Prime Minister. To achieve this so-called ‘transition to democracy’, only so it could prolong Musharraf’s own time in power, he has absolved Ms Bhutto of corruption charges and provided her state security, while political workers of other opposition parties are jailed. But, as many sceptics predicted, the plan is not working so well. Both Musharraf and Bhutto are used to absolute power and the emergency measures have made it far more difficult for Bhutto to be seen as negotiating with the General. There is considerable pressure from within her party to ally herself with other opposition political parties challenging Musharraf, but her hesitation may stem from the fact that a pre-3-November judiciary, a key demand of other opposition forces, may strike down the special ordinance passed to clear her of corruption charges.

Perpetuating an image

As the political drama unfolds, there are serious reservations about Ms Bhutto’s willingness to take on the army establishment that has often facilitated the return of civilian leadership, as long as it agrees not to question constants such as military spending, or perpetuating the image of a key ally in the ‘war on terror’ while cracking down on grassroots movements that could serve to counter-balance the clout of the militants. But the intelligentsia in Pakistan is increasingly reaching a consensus on re-negotiating the power balance with the army, questioning its dedication to eradicate extremism and confining its reach. Prior to 3 November, the Supreme Court’s choice of cases, its method of investigation and the remarks of the individual judges reflected this sentiment. Not only are those judges now under house arrest and denied medical attention, but the four lawyers who played a pivotal role in the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry earlier this year face the brunt of police brutality.

Musharraf has done a brilliant job of selling himself in the West as the great secular saviour

The lawyers’ movement has nevertheless sewn the seeds for a vibrant and dynamic popular undercurrent which may yet save Pakistan from further militant Islamic penetration. Although Musharraf’s onslaught has been unforgiving, packing vans designed for 12 people with 60 lawyers and releasing them only when a few have fainted and the rest imbibed sewerage water, members of legal bar rooms and media press clubs continue to resist in large numbers. They are joined by students, human rights activists and even women with their milder ‘flowers for justice’ campaign, laying floral wreaths outside homes of house-arrested judges who have declined to take the oath under the new order. Remarkably quick to take the oath, on the other hand, were the two Supreme Court judges who had freed the alleged Red Mosque terrorists.

Whether the opposition political forces join hands with each other to define Pakistan’s future civil-military relationship or are swayed by opportunism to strike a deal with the military remains to be seen. Civil society has clearly demonstrated its willingness to sacrifice and struggle against martial law for the supremacy of the constitution and rule of law. If, however, the ferocious crackdown continues, it may stifle the peaceful pleas and pickets of the temperate professionals, leaving a gaping hole. In the absence of a genuinely free and fair electoral process, in which all political actors are allowed to participate and an independent media and judiciary are tolerated, this may only be filled by heavily armed and ruthlessly confrontational militant forces.

Ayesha Ijaz Khan is a London-based lawyer and writer who be contacted via her website www.ayeshaijazkhan.com.

Comments on Musharraf’s mess

Leave your comment