Autumn of the patriarch

Autumn of the patriarch
Tuesday January 29, 2008: The Guardian

President Pervez Musharraf is undoubtedly sincere in his belief that he, and he alone, can save Pakistan from the twin perils of terrorism and anarchy. Yesterday he met Gordon Brown, but he has been saying the same thing to anyone he met on his latest European tour: Pakistan is in the centre of the fight against Islamic militancy, and if it loses that battle the effects will be felt all over the world; elections are to be held on February 18 and they will be free and fair; a state of emergency had to be imposed because no country could tolerate anarchy. But sincerity is not the issue with Mr Musharraf. It is whether he is truly in touch with what is happening in his country.

Take his conflicted relationship with the Pakistan media, the independence of which he claims to support. The question put to him by a respected Pakistani journalist at the Royal United Services Institute on Friday was an eminently fair one. How could people trust Pakistan's ability to safeguard its nuclear assets or conduct a competent inquiry into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto when suspected terrorists like Rashid Rauf could give police the slip and escape? Mr Musharraf turned on the journalist saying: "It is people like you that cast such aspersions and then such aspersions get around and are picked up by the foreign media." Mr Musharraf should realise that democracy is full of "people like him".

Then there is the matter of the former chief justice of the supreme court, Iftikhar Chaudhry and five colleagues, who continue to languish under house arrest. Mr Chaudhry's case has been championed by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Britain, the US, and numerous western bar associations. All to no avail. Mr Musharraf will not tolerate what he calls "judicial activism". A government handout listing the misdemeanours of the former chief justice runs to seven pages. It alleges nepotism and corruption (both unproven). It claims he harassed judges, civil servants and police officers, but then goes into bizarre details. These include claiming for acne lotion as a medical bill and, under the heading "Conduct Unbecoming", a fracas over the use of a governor's house which ended with the justice denying another guest the right to use the lavatory. The impression given is less that the chief justice made the country ungovernable, and more that there is a personal vendetta going on.

Mr Musharraf conflates his destiny with Pakistan's. The two are synonymous in his eyes. He may have shed his military uniform but not his belief that he is the ultimate arbiter of order. He claims the elections will be free and fair and that he will work with whoever is able to form the next government. We shall see. There is already evidence of the PML-Q, the party loyal to him, getting substantial logistical and financial support from the government. If the PML-Q gets a clear majority, robbing the two other mainstream parties, the PPP and PML-N, of the chance to form a government, a fresh political crisis will be unleashed.

Pakistan is in the eye of the storm. The state faces not only a continuing constitutional and political crisis, but major challenges from al-Qaida, the Taliban and insurgents in the tribal areas. The central charge against Mr Musharraf is not that he has bungled the fight against militants and that he now has to wage a real war in the tribal areas and Baluchistan, it is that in his perpetual manoeuvring to stay in power he has lost the trust of the people of Pakistan itself. Few believe that the election next month will give vent to that feeling. Perhaps that is why 100 retired senior military officers, including some of the staff officers who once trained the future president, wrote an open letter exhorting Mr Musharraf to resign. They too consider themselves patriots acting in the national interest. If the president is serious about giving Pakistan a real transition to democracy, he should heed their advice.

Also See: Retired Pakistani General leads anti-Musharraf movement - AFP


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