Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Pakistan in revolt. posted by Richard Seymour
Musharraf and the military overthrew the government of Nawaz Sharif in 1999, claiming that its motive was to end corruption in the previous government, revive the economy and restore failing institutions. Given that the military high command, which has ruled Pakistan for 33 years of its 59 years of existence, has never exactly been free of corruption itself (not to mention savage repression), this was never taken seriously. Nevertheless, there was considerable liberal applause when the coup took place. Tariq Ali writes:
To the popular delight at getting rid of Nawaz Sharif was added the innovation of a military take-over in the face of apparent White House displeasure. This, coupled with the pseudo-modernist rhetoric of the new ruler, encouraged a wave of amnesia. It was as if the institution that had dominated the country’s political life for so many decades had ceased to exist—or undergone a miraculous transformation. Liberal pundits in New York and Lahore lost their bearings, while in the London Review of Books Anatol Lieven decribed Musharraf’s administration as being ‘the most progressive Pakistan has had in a generation’.
It was initially argued that Musharraf intended to restore elected institutions swiftly, even pushing through a modernising programme of redistributing wealth, breaking up the landed elite, refraining from undue aggression in Kashmir, and holding back the Islamists that the Pakistani secret police (ISI) has been nurturing for decades. In reality, nothing fundamental changed - IMF policies continued to be imposed, ensuring that more money was spent on debt repayment than development, health or education; Musharraf, who had already led an earlier infringement into Kashmir, decided to embark on another confrontation in 2002; and he was happy to use groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, while the Islamist parties had never before had more than 2% support in national elections. Bush believed that "the General" would be a good thing for Pakistan, and was quickly rewarded with a craven capitulation during the 'war on terror'. The truth is that Nawaz Sharif was seen as being far too interested in asserting himself over the military, especially when he clashed with then army chief General Jehangir Karamat over the role of the military in determing security policy - ironically, it was Karamat's resignation that led Sharif to put Musharraf in charge of the army.
So, anyway, almost eight years on, and the regime is in serious trouble. Today, Karachi and several other cities have come to a standstill because of a general strike in response to a recent wave of violent repression by the state. The crisis began, tellingly enough, when the government decided to suspend Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry over alleged "misconduct". What he had been doing was using his position to challenge corruption in the government. In one crucial case, he stopped the regime from selling off the Pakistani Steel Mills for a tenth of their value. When the state tried to impose the Hasba bill, outlawing certain non-Islamic practises, Chaudhry deemed it unconstitutional. Recently he took up the case of 'missing' people who had been interrogated by ISI and CIA. If the military elite were not going to take orders from Sharif, they certainly weren't going to put up with this amount of adversarial challenge from the judiciary. The decision has been met by massive protests and a wave of resignations by senior judges and two deputy attorney generals, and Chaudhry has been cheered by enormous rallies wherever he has spoken, voicing his opposition to dictatorship. When Chaudhry appeared in Karachi on Saturday, 'clashes' took place between his supporters and supporters of the government: to put it another way, Musharraf sent some thugs out there to seal off the roads and attack the rally. 33 died in the street battles that ensued, most of them supporters of Chaudhry.
Stratfor reckons that whatever happens, Musharraf is finished:
The government is watching how the protests have increased from the thousands to the tens of thousands since the crisis began a little under two months ago, and more important, the fact that the protests have not fizzled out.
Musharraf has at his disposal few options, none of them good. He can follow the advice of those advocating a hard-line approach and end up like former Pakistani military dictator Field Marshall Ayub Khan, who was driven out of office amid protests in 1969; or he can cut a deal with the main opposition group, the Pakistan People's Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and share power. Musharaf has been, to a great degree, an unorthodox military leader and is known to opt for pragmatism in the face of a difficult situation, and he is likely to go for the latter option. But doing so will just delay the pace at which he will lose power, since stepping down from the military in the current circumstances could erode his position to the point that he might not complete the second five-year term he is seeking.
That was written before the riots and general strike. Simon Tisdall has a similar analysis:
"The conventional wisdom is that his time is running out. One mistake has been compounded by another," an Islamabad insider said. "A pro-democracy momentum has been building up for months and it could be very hard to stop. The clock is ticking.
"Musharraf could still defuse it if he changed course, if he really changed. He could admit he made a mistake (over suspending the supreme court's chief justice), apologise, promise free and fair elections.
"But for him to do that would be acting completely out of character. These military people find it hard to say sorry."
Obviously, Washington is terrified of what may occur. Pakistan is a crucial ally in South Asia and in the 'war on terror'. Musharraf and his military high command fulfil a crucial role in pacifying Afghanistan - indeed, the initial occupation of Afghanistan would not have been so quick and simple had the ISI not instructed its former students to leave. Unless the US finds someone to coopt and lead this movement, which would be very difficult for them to do, they are stuck with backing a lame duck.