Thursday, August 23, 2007

Benazir Bhutto; Prospects, Potential and Possibilities

Preparing to cross the Rubicon
By Eric S. Margolis: Dawn, August 23, 2007

‘I WILL return to Pakistan between September and December,’ Benazir Bhutto told me in an exclusive interview last week. Pakistan’s former prime minister vowed to leave her exile in Dubai and go home ‘with or without an agreement’ with Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military government.

Always controversial and fascinating, Ms Bhutto is getting ready to cross the Rubicon. On returning to Pakistan, she risks being treated as a rebel and criminal by the Musharraf regime and thrown into prison. Or, will the embattled, increasingly isolated Musharraf bow to his people’s demands and cooperate in restoring civilian-led democracy?

Ms Bhutto confirmed she has indeed, as rumoured, held rounds of intensive talks with Musharraf’s government. She also has held talks with old political rival, former PM Nawaz Sharif and senior US State Department officials.

However, Ms Bhutto denied my suggestion Washington is trying to engineer a deal to keep key ally Musharraf in power by having Benazir and her Pakistan’s Peoples Party join his government as junior coalition partners.

‘There is no agreement yet. The next two weeks will be crucial,’ she told me.

Clearly, the game’s afoot. It is hard to imagine a more exciting political drama. Benazir, long scorned by Pakistan’s powerful army generals, has thrown down the gauntlet to Gen. Musharraf.

Will throngs of avid Bhutto supporters seize Karachi Airport to open the way for her return? Or will Musharraf’s soldiers deny her incoming plane landing rights, just as Nawaz did to Musharraf’s aircraft in 1999?

Will the army arrest Bhutto – and Nawaz Sharif – on their return? Will there be mass riots, or will the army split, with some younger officers supporting Ms Bhutto. Reports come to me of growing unrest in the armed forces over the $1 billion monthly Washington pays the Musharraf government to ‘rent’ 80,000 of his soldiers to fight rebellious, pro-Taliban Pashtun tribesmen.

More questions abound. Will Musharraf drop criminal charges against Benazir, and annul recently reinstated charges against Nawaz? Newly assertive Pakistani courts may no longer serve as tools of government repression.

This writer has known Ms Bhutto for a long time and was often critical when she was prime minister. But you really only get to know people when they face adversity. I have watched Benazir face down many crises with coolness and consummate political skill and not give in to self-pity, even at the darkest times, a few of which I shared with her.

Benazir has grown in character and strength in exile and remains Pakistan’s most popular and capable democratic political leader. She has also learned a great deal about politics and human nature in the years since she was last a young prime minister surrounded by glowering older men and overtly hostile generals.

But wouldn’t a deal with Musharraf dismay her followers and tarnish her own reputation? ‘We must deal with reality,’ she politically answers. Power sharing with Musharraf, I asked? ‘We can get along with some generals,’ comes her cautiously reply. She used to accuse me of being too chummy with ‘your beloved Pakistani generals.’

‘Musharraf needs to resign to clear the way to promotion for younger, capable generals,’ says Bhutto, otherwise the army will lose some of its best men.

Bhutto says she is ready to work with Musharraf and a reinvigorated parliament to rebuild democracy in Pakistan, a process she calls ‘internal reconciliation.’ With an eye on her American audience and the White House, Bhutto adds, ‘only democracy can undermine terrorism.’ She is quite right, of course. Much of what the West terms ‘Islamic terrorism’ is really violence and protest directed against the Muslim World’s dictatorial regimes.But who would be the real boss in a ‘power-sharing’ deal? Benazir seems far too smart to be used as a token prime minister to legitimise Musharraf’s floundering regime. The general may be too accustomed to absolute power and yes men to accept constraint by a powerful prime minister and parliament. It seems a recipe for paralysis or, worse.

Musharraf would do his nation a favour by resigning as military chief and running in an honest election against Benazir and Nawaz. Democracy is Pakistan’s only fire exit from the increasingly dangerous tensions and risk of civil war it now faces.

How do you feel right now, I asked her? ‘Excited, tense,’ Benazir replied. That also sums up Pakistan’s mood as it waits for this remarkable lady to return home. — Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2007

Also See:
Benazir unveils details of deal with Musharraf: Dawn
Former Pakistani Premier Discusses Power-sharing Plan: Newshour with Jim Lehrer

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