Musharraf Loses Ability to Maneuver After Pakistani Protests
By Khalid Qayum and Anthony Spaeth
Bloomberg; June 26, 2007
June 26 (Bloomberg) -- Four months of street protests have eroded Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's popular support, threatening his plans to get re-elected while keeping control of the military, the key to his power.
A constitutional amendment allowing the army chief of staff to also hold the presidency expires at the end of this year. The Pakistani leader, whose presidential term through an indirect election ends Nov. 15, is facing U.S. calls for a loosening of one-man rule, as well as the protesters' demands for a full restoration of democracy.
``Musharraf's stars are fading,'' Hassan Abbas, a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said in an e- mail. ``There is a cry for free, fair and transparent elections.''
The pressure, which comes from Pakistan's middle class, opposition politicians and hard-line Islamists, undermines the position of one of the Bush administration's top allies in the war on terror -- and the man who controls Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
While Musharraf, 63, may decide to work with one of the country's political parties to regain the popular support he had when he seized power in 1999, he has yet to do so. Meanwhile, ``the U.S. is repeating the same mistake it did in Iran,'' said Ahsan Iqbal, information secretary for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, one of the country's two most popular parties.
``The people are seeing American support for Musharraf and they are asking why America's demand for democracy stops at the Afghanistan border,'' he said in an interview.
Musharraf so far seems to retain control of the military, and the protests against him haven't swelled into a full-blown movement. Still, the events of the past four months are a rapid turnabout for Musharraf, whose coup came after 11 years of short- lived democratic governments run by Benazir Bhutto and Mohammad Nawaz Sharif.
His troubles began in March when his government removed Supreme Court Chief Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry from his post on unspecified charges. Chaudhry had been likely to rule on the constitutional amendment and legality of Musharraf remaining as army chief while president, the Dawn newspaper reported.
Lawyers protested in Pakistan's main cities against what they called an assault on the independence of the judiciary. Since then, protests have turned violent -- 40 were killed in clashes between pro- and anti-Musharraf demonstrators in Karachi on May 12 and 13 -- and started to attract broader support.
``The movement is led and organized by the middle class but the support base of this movement, the people on the streets chanting for the chief justice, are from lower strata of society,'' said the Kennedy School's Abbas. ``And this, according to political theory, is an ideal combination for revolutions and major protests.''
Washington sent two envoys to Islamabad this month, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. Both urged him to allow more participation in the political process.
Musharraf held a restricted general election in 2002, and was indirectly elected president by the legislature and state assemblies in 2004. The elections weren't considered free because of the absences of Sharif and Bhutto, leaders of the two parties that have dominated Pakistani politics for decades and still have mass support. Musharraf sent Sharif, 57, into exile in 2000. Bhutto, 54, was already living in London and Dubai to avoid corruption cases.
Extending the Amendment
Musharraf has said he wanted the legislature elected in 2002 to re-elect him as president this year and not to wait for a new legislature to be elected in January. His plans on how to extend the constitutional amendment weren't clear.
Anger among Islamist fundamentalists over Musharraf's close ties to the administration of President George W. Bush is also growing, said Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a cleric at the Red Mosque, the oldest in Islamabad. ``The minds of the people of Pakistan, their hatred for Musharraf and, frankly, their hatred of Americans, has now increased,'' he said.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., Musharraf won the Bush administration's loyalty by abandoning his support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and saying he would crack down on Muslim extremists in Pakistan.
``After 9/11 there was a U-turn, a big change, and that change was taken without the consent, the willingness of the people of Pakistan,'' Ghazi said. ``Our own land was used to kill thousands of our own brothers and sisters in Afghanistan.''
Ghazi, whose brother Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz is the mosque's chief cleric, said they are leading a ``movement'' or ``jihad'' to rid Pakistan of its politicians, its courts and most of its civil institutions -- although not the military --and replace them with a purely Islamic system.
Last month, students from the mosque seized two police officers and held them in the mosque for four days. Last weekend, they kidnapped seven Chinese workers from an Islamabad acupuncture clinic, which they claimed was a brothel, and held them overnight.
``We are not saying `Musharraf, go away,' and then another Musharraf will rise,'' Ghazi said in an interview at the mosque. ``We say the system is a total failure in Pakistan. It may be accommodating the ruling class, but it's giving nothing to the people.''
To contact the reporters on this story: Khalid Qayum in Islamabad, Pakistan at firstname.lastname@example.org ; Anthony Spaeth in Islamabad, Pakistan at email@example.com