Weeks of protests take toll on Pakistan regime
By Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY: June 7, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf faces an unprecedented revolt that threatens his eight-year rule and could cost the United States one of its principal allies.
Musharraf's government has been shaken by a wave of protests, including a demonstration Thursday by 6,000 in Lahore, that followed his March decision to suspend the country's chief justice.
"He's losing his grip," says former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in a bloodless 1999 coup. "He's not in the same strong position he used to be in. … He's erratic. He's unpredictable."
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The Supreme Court is expected to decide within weeks whether to reinstate the chief justice. Facing the possibility of more protests, Musharraf, who also serves as army chief, responded this week by:
•Rounding up hundreds of opposition figures. The Pakistan People's Party of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said 300 of its members had been arrested, and Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League said 700 activists had been detained for 90 days and scattered to jails across the country.
•Tightening controls on TV stations, which have been forbidden from live telecasts.
•Complaining that his parliamentary coalition wasn't doing enough to support him. Pro-Musharraf lawmakers are planning to rally on his behalf today, and Musharraf will address the nation in coming days, says Farooq Amjad Mir, a pro-Musharraf legislator.
•Releasing details of the government case against ousted chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. In court affidavits made public Thursday, top Musharraf aides accuse the jurist of financial impropriety and say he wanted Musharraf to dissolve parliament and let him oversee new elections. The aides deny Chaudhry's claim he was pressured to quit.
Chaudhry was a potential obstacle to the president's desire for a new five-year term. He had the power to prevent Musharraf from running again without first giving up his role as army chief. The justice might also have overruled Musharraf's plans to seek a new five-year term from the existing parliament, rather than one that will convene after fall elections.
Anti-Musharraf rallies have grown since independent broadcasters showed police manhandling Chaudhry and aired footage of pro-Musharraf activists attacking demonstrators in Karachi street clashes that killed 40 people on May 12.
"The government is making mistake after mistake," says Hussain Ahmad Piracha, a political scientist at International Islamic University in Islamabad. "From top to bottom, the Pakistani people want to establish the rule of law. And they want the military to go back to their barracks."
Pakistan's top generals this week issued an unusual public statement of support for Musharraf. The statement was a gesture some saw as proof he has been weakened by three months of demonstrations.
Musharraf's regime "is a sinking stone," says Ayaz Amir, columnist with the newspaper Dawn. "If (U.S.) Gen. (David) Petraeus in Iraq said he supported George Bush, would you see that a sign of strength?"
Musharraf's 1999 takeover was initially cheered by the middle class, which was fed up with the corruption under Bhutto and Sharif. Ordinary Pakistanis increasingly have turned against him. "He has to go," says Rahman Ali, 45, sales clerk at a carpet shop in Rawalpindi. "We are just fed up."
The Bush administration has relied on Musharraf to battle al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in border regions and to prevent Pakistan from sharing its nuclear weapons technology. Tuesday, President Bush gently rebuked Pakistan — along with Saudi Arabia and Egypt — praising efforts against Islamic extremism but saying they need to move toward democracy.
Under Musharraf, Pakistan has improved relations with India, reduced fighting in Kashmir and recorded annual economic growth of more than 6% the past three years. "Pakistan is getting airborne economically," says Ahmed Reza Qasoori, a lawyer representing Musharraf's government. "The present government has brought economic and political stability."
Musharraf's rivals say the United States is making a mistake by continuing to back an unpopular dictator. They point to U.S. support in the 1970s for the shah of Iran, who was ousted and replaced by a radical Islamic regime. "You are supporting another shah," says Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for Sharif's party. "Have you learned nothing from history?"