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Pakistan: Musharraf at Bay

15 May 2007

Pakistan: Musharraf at Bay

By Gwynne Dyer

“The vast majority is with me,” said Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, a year ago. “The day I come to know I’m not popular, I’ll quit. But more than that, they’ll be out in the streets, and I would not be allowed to stay.” Well, they’ve been out in the streets for two months now, and it’s a good question how long the general will be able to stay in power. It’s an even better question what comes next.

Of the nine nuclear weapons powers in the world, seven are stable, predictable countries that basically support the status quo: the United States, Russia, China, India, Britain, France and Israel. The eighth, North Korea, may have one or two working nuclear weapons, or maybe not. (Its test last October was an almost complete failure.) And then there is Pakistan, a one-bullet regime with Islamist radicals lurking in the wings and around fifty nuclear weapons plus delivery vehicles.

A year or so after Pakistan first tested its nuclear weapons in 1998, I asked an American defence analyst what he thought would happen if officers who were seen as extrtemists took power in Pakistan. He said that there would be “a traffic jam over Kahuta” (then the main Pakistani nuclear centre), as American, Indian and Iranian aircraft launched simultaneous, uncoordinated strikes aimed at eliminating Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.

It’s too late for that now: Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are widely dispersed and well protected. But it does give a measure of how horrified some other countries would be if Musharraf` were replaced by a regime drawn from some of the more extreme elements in the Pakistani military. The current agitation suggests an eventual transition back to civilian rule instead, but there are no rules in Pakistani politics.

When General Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup eight years ago, popular disgust with the corruption of Pakistan’s civilian politicians was so deep that he had real popular support for some years. Generals have run Pakistan for almost half the time since independence sixty years ago, and on average the military regimes have been slightly less corrupt (although they have also repeatedly dragged the country into unwinnable wars). But Musharraf’s life got much more difficult after the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September, 2001.

Washington, intent on invading Afghanistan, demanded Pakistan’s help with menaces. Musharraf claims that Richard Armitage, then US assistant secretary of state, warned Pakistan’s intelligence director that if the country did not cooperate fully with the United States, it should “be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the stone age.” So he cooperated.

Ever since, Musharraf has walked a tight-rope, pulled one way by Washington’s demands and the other by the Islamic loyalties and fierce anti-Americanism of most of the Pakistani public. A booming economy (7 percent growth this year) has helped a bit, but the wealth doesn’t get spread very widely: about one percent of the country’s 165 million people are rich, perhaps another three percent would count as middle class, and the rest are poor. Much less than half the population is literate, and only two million people in the whole country pay income tax.

Pakistani governments, both civilian and military, traditionally depend on appeals to nationalism and religious sentiment to keep the impoverished majority quiet, but this has worked much less well for Musharraf since he was compelled to side with the United States in the “war on terror.” The surprise is that it has taken this long for a crisis to erupt, but now it has arrived.

The trigger was Musharraf’s attempt two months ago to dismiss Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, in order to make way for a more malleable judge who would not challenge his intention to run for president again this November while remaining commander-in-chief of the army. (That is unconstitutional under Pakistani law, but Musharraf got away with it in the rigged election of 2002, and he wanted to be sure he had no trouble this time either.)

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. All the groups that felt abused or insulted by Musharraf’s policies finally went out into the streets, and the protests continue: last weekend in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and financial capital, 41 people were killed in street fighting. He may not be able to ride this out. If he cannot, what comes next?

There are rumours of a deal between Musharraf and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, the biggest in the country. She has been living in exile for the past decade, but he would amnesty her and she would come home to be prime minister again, leaving him in the presidency. Nawaz Sharif, the ex-prime minister whom Musharraf overthrew in 1999, denies this, insisting that “(Bhutto) said to me she will not enter into any deal with Musharraf,” but stranger things have happened in Pakistani politics.

Musharraf may be able to tough it out for a while longer, but the civilian politicians will probably be back in the end. There is, however, another, deeply worrisome possibility. The Pakistani army is a black box, and nobody knows what is going to come out of it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Washington…incometax”)

Pakistan: The Persistence of Democracy

 8 October 2002

Pakistan: The Persistence of Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf was so determined to ensure that neither of his two democratically elected predecessors made a comeback that he made a few constitutional changes before calling parliamentary elections. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif served two terms as prime minister, so he made a new law that no one could have a third term.

Musharraf didn’t even want them to run in this month’s elections, so he also made a law that nobody convicted of corruption could stand for office (that covered Sharif), nor anybody who had failed to answer court charges either (that covered Bhutto). He would probably have made a law that nobody whose names begin with N or B could run for office if his advisers had not warned him that it sounded arbitrary.

It’s an old story: Pakistan has been ruled by generals for about half the time since its creation in 1947, but the generals always have a problem with legitimacy. No matter how they try, they cannot eradicate the assumption among ordinary Pakistanis that democracy is the normal state of affairs. Always, in the end, the country tries democracy again — even though it has been almost uniquely ill-served by its civilian political leaders.

Take the two civilians who dominated political life in Pakistan during the decade between the death of General Zia ul-Haq and Musharraf’s coup in 1999. Nawaz Sharif was a corrupt and cynical manipulator who ran the economy into the ground. Bhutto was more a poor manager than an outright thief, but her husband, Asif Ali Zardari (universally known in Pakistan as Mister Ten Percent), who served as investment minister in her government, is accused of stealing over a billion dollars from the state and has spent the past 8 years in prison.

Bhutto is also a total flake. She is only politically prominent because her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was also prime minister once, and was overthrown and hanged by the last-but-one military dictator of Pakistan. In power she was an unmitigated disaster, and yet she persists in the belief that she is the country’s anointed saviour. In one recent interview, she declared that “whenever I am in power, or my father was in power, good things happen. The economy picks up, we have good rains, water comes, people have crops. I think the reason this happens is that we want to give love and to receive love.”

Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party nevertheless remains the greatest obstacle to Musharraf’s plan to hold an apparently free and fair parliamentary election while still keeping real power in his own hands. At one point the PPP, though riven by factional intrigues, looked likely to win control of the new parliament, prompting the general’s henchmen to deploy the resources of the state in support of the main pro-Musharraf party, a breakaway faction of Nawaz Sharif’s old Pakistani Muslim League called Quaid-i-Azam.

It is very likely that the European Union observers will blow the whistle on the whole electoral process, but Musharraf has made certain that power is not really passing back into civilian hands. He has extended his ‘presidential’ term to five years, he has given himself the right to dissolve parliament at will if its behaviour does not please him, and he has created a new military-dominated National Security Council which will effectively outrank the civilian cabinet. And yet….

The remarkable thing about Pakistan is that its people don’t stop demanding democracy even though their experiences of it have been uniformly disappointing. Despite the country’s overweening military and its desperate poverty, despite the bitter ethnic rivalries and the fear of India that the generals exploit so well, military rulers never manage to resist that demand for very long. In other places military strongmen may stay in power for twenty-five or thirty years — Mubarak in Egypt, Assad in Syria, Suharto in Indonesia — but no Pakistani military dictator has made it much past ten. The beginning of their downfall is generally the first election that they hold to legitimise their rule.

The tradition begins with the rigged vote that made General Ayub Khan president in 1964. The opposition united behind the sister of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who almost certainly won the vote if not the count, and the humiliation that Ayub suffered was the start of his long decline.

General Zia ul-Haq’s 1984 referendum, in which he only managed to persuade five or ten percent of the population to come out and vote, marked a similar downward turning turn in his career. And will this election be the beginning of the end for Musharraf? Quite possibly, even though there was never any chance that he would be allowed to lose it.

Musharraf has had only three years in power, and until the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States made him an indispensable US ally, he was weaker by far than previous Pakistani military dictators at a similar stage of their trajectories. That is largely a reflection of the fact that civil society in Pakistan, despite all the factionalism and corruption of politics, is much stronger than it was under Ayub or Zia.

“There is an element of desperation,” said Najam Sethi, editor of the ‘Friday Times’. “The new Musharraf is a man who will bend any law and make any alliance in order to stay in power.” And it still looks unlikely that he will last more than a couple of years more.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 10. (“Bhutto…love”; and “The tradition…lose it”)

Pakistan’s elections are on 10 October, but the counting of the votes will take several days.