By Hassan Abbas; International Herald Tribune, August 27, 2008
Western governments clearly have mixed feelings about the legacy of Pervez Musharraf and are trying to grasp what is in store for a nuclear-armed state whose writ is diminishing within its territories.
The concern is legitimate, but it underestimates Pakistan's potential. The notion that somehow developing countries, and especially Muslim-majority states, cannot adjust to democratic model is a flawed assessment. The track record of democratic governments in Pakistan is indeed mixed, but it is also true that democracy takes time to develop.
In fact, Pakistan was created out of a democratic movement led by a constitutional lawyer, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who aspired to make Pakistan a pluralistic, democratic state. Pakistan was also the first Muslim state to elect a woman as prime minister in 1988, the late Benazir Bhutto.
Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also a former prime minister, went to the gallows in 1977 rather than submit to a military dictator. The daughter returned to Pakistan in 2007 after a long exile to lead the democracy movement, knowing fully well that she was a prime target of anti-democratic forces.
Despite such courageous acts, Western governments, primarily the United States and Britain, have shown far more patience with dictators than with elected leaders. Periods of military rule in Pakistan - 1958-69; 1977-88; 1999-2008 - lasted an average of 10 years, while democratic phases lasted an average of less than three years and were often declared to be unstable, corrupt and weak. Foreign aid also declined during the democratic periods.
This is not to say that the reemergence of democracy will resolve everything quickly and amicably. History shows that dictatorships destroy the social fabric of societies and diminish the capacity of state institutions to function effectively.
Musharraf, though a liberal person at heart, was no different. He did contribute positively in certain areas - for instance in initiating a peace process with India - but overall his policies proved to be divisive and haphazard. The humiliating way in which he dealt with the judiciary in Pakistan cannot be defended on any grounds.
Musharraf's autocratic decisions did not go unchallenged in Pakistan. An energetic lawyers' movement emerged in response. In its early days, it failed to attract Western support, perhaps because the West did not expect people of a "backward Muslim country" to go into the streets to demand rule of law.
Still, it must be acknowledged that the United States and Britain did push Musharraf to allow Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan and hold free elections.
With Musharraf's departure, Pakistanis have gained a new opportunity to put their house in order. Similarly, the Western world has a fresh opening to support democratic forces.
The challenges are huge, but not insurmountable. Without a doubt, religious bigotry is ascendant in Pakistan's tribal areas and violence in the shape of suicide bombings and attacks on girls' schools and music shops are on the rise.
To reverse this trend, a new counter-terrorism policy focused on isolating the terrorists, politically as well as physically, along with increased economic opportunities should be a priority for the new government.
Restoration of the deposed judges, as promised by major coalition parties, and a smooth election of the new president in coming weeks will set the stage for serious policy making and consensus developing on critical issues.
Despite the recent breakup of the coalition, the government is not going to fall. Such developments are part of a democratic process.
Pakistan can indeed be rescued from a further slide into chaos, and its democratic institutions are better placed to tackle this situation than any dictatorship. But this can only happen if the West supports democracy and patience.
Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani government official who served in the Bhutto and Musharraf administrations, is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. He is the author of "Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror."