Red Dawn: Musharraf's Enemies close In

Musharraf's enemies close in.
Red Dawn
by Peter Bergen: the New Republic; 07.12.07

wo months ago, on a rainy afternoon in Islamabad, I paid a visit to the Red Mosque. Its militant imam, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was suddenly a force to be reckoned with in Pakistani politics, his students having recently undertaken a series of violent protests aimed at showing their contempt for the government of President Pervez Musharraf. The proximate cause of their anger was the demolition of several mosques in Islamabad that authorities said had been built without the required authorizations, but their agenda had broader elements, including a demand that Musharraf implement sharia law. Starting in January, Ghazi's followers occupied a municipal library adjoining the Red Mosque. Meanwhile, masked students armed with batons visited video store owners and told them to close their businesses, while others destroyed CDs.

Heavily bearded men and younger boys were milling about the grounds when I arrived. One of them ushered me through a courtyard and into a walled area guarded by a man wielding an AK-47. Finally, after some waiting, I was taken to see Ghazi, who was finishing typing his just-delivered Friday sermon on a computer in Urdu. He greeted me with a broad smile, his face framed by professorial, gold-rimmed glasses, a bushy salt-and-pepper beard, and a reddish knit cap. In excellent English, he told me about his views on women ("Females should be educated," he said, explaining why the two madrassas he managed include, somewhat unusually, a large number of female students) and his 1998 meeting with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (the two men chatted--mostly in English--for about an hour). I asked Ghazi what would happen if the government tried to use force to subdue his protesting students. "We will resist," he told me, with a smile.

nd they did. Ghazi was killed this week--along with dozens of his supporters--when Pakistani troops stormed his mosque after a weeklong siege. The soldiers had surrounded the compound earlier this month after Ghazi's followers committed their most brazen act yet: kidnapping six Chinese women in Islamabad from what they said was a brothel. The women were only released after the Chinese ambassador personally intervened with the government, which in turn pressured Ghazi to free the abducted citizens of one of Pakistan's closest allies. The episode seems to have been the final straw for the Musharraf government, which dispatched troops to the Red Mosque a week later. The days that followed saw a bizarre scene unfold: a Pakistani version of what might have happened if David Koresh had set up shop blocks from Capitol Hill-- the Red Mosque is just a few minutes drive from Pakistan's parliament--with droves of armed acolytes in tow.

All this mayhem was quite out of character for Islamabad, which has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most boring cities in South Asia. Its regimented neighborhoods--with anodyne names like F6 and E11--are filled with comfortable villas, home to diplomats and senior government officials who are attended by fleets of servants. Their gardens are shaded by jasmine trees and generously scented with the wild marijuana that grows throughout the city. Nightlife is pretty much non-existent beyond L'Atmosphere, a discreet French restaurant that serves foie gras and decent red wine. Built in the early '60s to serve as Pakistan's capital, Islamabad's broad tree-lined avenues are worlds away from Karachi, the seething, barely governable mega-city of 14 million to the south, or Peshawar to the west, which is ruled by a coalition of militant Islamist parties known as the MMA.

These days, of course, Islamabad doesn't seem quite so dull. But the siege of the Red Mosque is only part of the reason. Beyond the threat from Islamists, Musharraf is also facing a constitutional confrontation with the Supreme Court's chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and the looming prospect of a challenge from his old nemesis Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who fled the country a decade ago and is now widely expected to come home to compete in upcoming parliamentary elections. As a result, even before the Red Mosque showdown, change was already in the air in this most staid of capital cities. What no one seems to know, however, is what form that change will take. Are these the last days of a dying regime? Or the prelude to a crackdown that could snuff out the hopes of Pakistani democrats for years to come?

n March, Musharraf made what would turn out to be a spectacular mistake--suspending Chief Justice Chaudhry, ostensibly because he was abusing his office but more likely because he had shown refreshing independence from the government, for instance by looking into the fates of some of the hundreds of "disappeared" Pakistanis who are widely believed to have been sucked into the maw of the ISI, the powerful military intelligence agency. Such independence could not have pleased Musharraf, given that the Supreme Court might eventually have to rule on a matter rather dear to the general's heart: the vexed question of whether he can continue to serve as both president of the country and head of its military--which, at least in theory, Pakistan's constitution forbids.

Musharraf came to power in 1999 on a surge of popular goodwill following a bloodless military coup, but, over the last five years, he has managed to badly alienate much of his country's population. His first blunder was to rig a 2002 election so that religious parties did better at the polls than they had ever done in Pakistani history. Then he reneged on his promise to doff his uniform and surrender his dual role as president and chief of the military. He also presided over an unpopular, and ultimately unsuccessful, war against local militants in the tribal region of Waziristan. Meanwhile, he aligned himself so closely with the United States that Pakistanis began referring to him as Busharraf. Plus, as we know from our own political system, simple fatigue with the incumbent will generally set in after eight years of rule.

Almost overnight, the fired chief justice became a hero to all sorts of disparate groups fed up with Musharraf. The first wave of protests in support of Chaudhry was undertaken by the most unlikely of demonstrators: lawyers wearing black suits, pressed white shirts, and black ties. When they stormed the entrance to the Supreme Court building, it made for great television. In the days when Pakistan had only government-controlled TV, such footage never would have seen the light of day. But, in recent years, a number of private channels have sprung up, most prominently GEO Television.

And that's where the government made another mistake. A week into the crisis, on March 16, GEO was carrying live pictures of demonstrations around the Supreme Court. Hamid Mir, GEO's Islamabad bureau chief, told me he had set up cameras on the roof of his office: "We were showing police firing rubber bullets on the protesters and tear gas--the first time that the Pakistani people were seeing these scenes live." About an hour later, policemen armed with guns and lathi sticks started gathering outside the GEO office, then entered the building's reception area and beat the receptionist. Mir says, "We retreated into our newsroom area"--rows of computer screens and televisions--"and made a human chain, including with our female colleagues." Pakistani police are reluctant to attack women, so they stood down, but not before they had trashed an adjoining news organization's office. GEO naturally filmed much of this and carried it live. Within hours, Musharraf appeared on GEO to apologize. Still, Mir says the government has kept up the pressure not to report on the chief justice saga, going so far as to block his station's signal in early June and force the channel off the air for days.

Meanwhile, Chaudhry has been traveling to rallies around the country, where he is routinely greeted by boisterous crowds of tens of thousands of Pakistanis from all walks of life. Their demands are simple: that the government uphold the independence of the judiciary and that Musharraf give up his dual status as president and military chief. This emergence of a grassroots, democratic movement suggests that wide swaths of the public want Pakistan to emulate neighboring India--a democratic state that does not constantly revert to military rule, as Pakistan has done four times since the two countries gained independence from the British in 1947.

nfortunately for those who want a return to genuine civilian rule, Musharraf appears to have something of a Messiah complex, making him loath to relinquish any of his power. Readers of his 2006 autobiography, In the Line of Fire , were treated to an ode to the author's sagacity and leadership ability that was striking even by the self-serving conventions of political memoir. Perhaps it is not surprising that a dictator would convince himself that only he can save his country. What is surprising is that Musharraf has managed to convince others as well. And no one has fallen for this hoax harder than President Bush. It is a central plank of the administration's foreign policy that democratization is the best way to counter militant Islamists. Yet Bush has been strikingly silent on the need for Musharraf to loosen his grip on Pakistan, the world's second-largest Muslim country.

Contra the widespread myth that democracy would merely empower Pakistan's Islamists, it would likely damage the MMA, the coalition of religious parties that has never succeeded in winning more than 12 percent of the vote. (And that was in the 2002 election, which Musharraf fixed to disadvantage the two main secular parties.) In fact, polling indicates that the MMA will garner around 5 percent of ballots in the upcoming election. The Islamist militants of the Red Mosque, in other words, may be feisty enough to weaken Musharraf politically through their protests and violence, but they are not nearly numerous enough to run the country.

So who might benefit from the upcoming vote, if not the Islamists? That's where Benazir Bhutto comes in. For months, Islamabad was atwitter about the nature of the deal Musharraf and Bhutto were widely presumed to be cutting. The rumored agreement would allow Bhutto to return to Pakistan to campaign for her party--although not to run for prime minister, as she has already served the two terms allowable under the present constitution--while Musharraf would drop the corruption charges that he used to chase her out of the country in the first place. Bhutto would then play the key role in selecting the next prime minister. For his part, Musharraf would retain the presidency.

That deal now appears to be in jeopardy after riots in Karachi in May, where members of a party allied with Musharraf killed a number of Bhutto's supporters. Musharraf has also recently reiterated that Bhutto is banned from Pakistan. However, that won't necessarily stop Bhutto from returning to her homeland, since she probably wins no matter what Musharraf does. If he throws her in jail, he turns her into a martyr and summons potent memories of the military dictator Muhammad Zia's imprisonment and execution of her popular father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. If he does nothing when Bhutto returns, she will be greeted as a heroine by the millions who will attend her political rallies.

And so the coming months will likely present Musharraf with a choice. He can assert his authority as a rigid autocrat. Or he can agree to some sort of power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto and her allies--a deal that would cement an alliance between the secular political parties and the military based on a liberal, moderate vision of Pakistan's future, but one that would effectively end his one-man rule. Hassan Abbas, a former senior Pakistani police official now at Harvard's Kennedy School, is not optimistic that Musharraf will do the right thing. "All the signs are that he will rig the elections," he predicts. Whatever choice he makes, the Pakistani leader's grasp on power has never seemed so tenuous. Abdul Rashid Ghazi may be dead, but Musharraf's problems are just beginning.

Peter Bergen is a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know .

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