“Pakistan is on the verge of destabilization”

General Musharraf declares emergency rule in Pakistan

Manal Ahmad
November 4, 2007

(see North Gate News Online)
_______

People in Pakistan awoke Sunday morning to find all private news channels blacked out from their TV sets.

They had paid their cable bills all right. It’s just that the President and Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule in the country the night before, suspending the constitution and with it the fundamental freedoms of speech and public assembly, giving authorities carte blanche to arrest people without informing them of charges.

For those who had witnessed General Musharraf’s first coup eight years ago, it was a familiar situation.

“It doesn’t feel like anything’s happened,” said Zohra Latif, 23, hours after emergency was declared. A resident of Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city 162 miles south of the capital Islamabad, Latif was hanging out with some friends at home when she heard the news, but they didn’t bother to tune into state-owned Pakistan Television (PTV) for Musharraf’s address to the nation late Saturday night. “We’ve heard it all before.”

The last time Pakistani troops stormed the capital city, surrounded government buildings, detained political leaders and censored independent TV and radio channels under Musharraf’s orders was October 12th 1999, when the Chief of Army Staff faced the sack from then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Musharraf’s “second coup”, as it has been dubbed by Pakistan’s relatively un-curtailed English print media, came a mere 11 days before his current term as President expired. The expiration deadline was set in January 2004, when a vote of confidence in Parliament allowed Musharraf to remain in power till November 15th 2007. Musharraf won two-thirds of the vote by promising to step down as Chief of Army Staff by the end of 2004.

Step down he never did, citing his efforts to fight terrorism as a pretext to occupy both offices. Then, in September this year, Musharraf pledged to do the same if he won the October 6th presidential election and the Supreme Court upheld the result.

He won, by a landslide, in an election largely boycotted by the opposition on the grounds that Musharraf was ineligible to run while still in uniform. The Supreme Court was scheduled to rule this week on the election result’s validity – if the Court ruled against it, Musharraf would have had to relinquish his post as Chief of Army Staff and then re-run for the presidency as a civilian, presuming he wanted to stay in politics.

And if the court ruled in favor of his victory, the General would have had to finally give up the uniform of 43 years before taking the Presidential oath, yielding to intense domestic and international pressure and his own word of honor, not to mention the law.

But in what seems to many Pakistanis a desperate double-edged attempt to cling to khaki-power and pre-empt the hearings of multiple petitions filed against him by the Supreme Court, Musharraf took the easy way out of the legal tangle by declaring emergency and dissolving the judiciary altogether.

“It was the deadline of taking off the uniform that was the real trigger,” said a political analyst based in Islamabad in a phone interview Sunday morning (name withheld on request).

And, as eight years before, Musharraf justified his actions by invoking Pakistan’s “solidarity”, “security”, and “national interests”.

National Interests

“’Pakistan comes first’ is my guiding rule, and it is above all personal gains,” Musharraf said, appearing on state-TV Saturday night not in military regalia but in a plain black sherwani, an outfit popularized among political leaders by Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

The recent “unprecedented level” of terror attacks in the country, Musharraf said, led to his decision to proclaim emergency. Since July, more than 450 civilians and soldiers have been killed and hundreds more injured in the bloodiest spate of suicide bombings in Pakistan’s history.

Musharraf also accused Pakistan’s judiciary of “overstepping the limits of its authority” and “weakening the Government’s resolve to fight terrorism”, alluding in part to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s release of 61 supposed “terrorists”, men picked up on the streets by Pakistani intelligence and detained without charge since September 11th (see rough cut “Pakistan: Disappeared” on Frontline/World, http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld).

Musharraf added, with reference to the turmoil that followed the controversial deposition of the Chief Justice in March this year and the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) debacle in July, that “it was unfortunate that the media did not help in curbing the projection of negative thinking.”

“I believe we should have free media,” he said in his address. “It was my government that gave freedom to the media in 1999.” In the last five years, about 130 FM stations and 50 TV channels have sprung up in Pakistan, according to an article in Pakistani daily The News, including the immensely popular private cable stations Geo and ARY.

But, qualifying that the media “needs to be more responsible”, Musharraf on Sunday issued “a ban on live television broadcasts of ‘incidents of violence and conflict’. Also, TV operators who ‘ridicule’ the president, armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial organs of the state can be punished with three years in jail,” said an AP report.

The Bhutto Connection

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto openly condemned Musharraf’s proclamation. “This isn’t emergency, this is martial law!” she exclaimed in a phone interview with CNN. Bhutto, daughter of late Prime Minister and UC Berkeley alum Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, had flown to Dubai from Karachi on the 1st of November, only to rush back home Saturday night.

Last month, Musharraf dropped outstanding corruption charges against Bhutto, allowing her to return to Pakistan for the first time since she went into exile in 1999.

But though Bhutto is publicly opposing Musharraf’s “unconstitutional” move, she is not averse to a previously-proposed U.S.-backed power-sharing deal if he “restores the constitution immediately”. In fact, according to an analyst, the word in Islamabad’s intellectual circles is that Bhutto was in the know about the entire plan. “She has to keep political face, of course,” said the analyst. “But her return last night was definitely part of an arrangement.”

For critics throughout Pakistan, Bhutto isn’t the only one who was.

“Verbal Diarrhea”

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the emergency declaration “highly regrettable” in her statements to the press, stressing that Washington was not informed about Musharraf’s plan.

However, according to the Islamabad-based analyst and other reliable sources in Lahore privy with the General (names withheld on request), that isn’t quite true. Musharraf said in his address to the nation that he consulted with “political and private friends within the country and abroad before taking this step”. One of Musharraf’s closest “friends” abroad is the Bush Administration, which has provided him about $11 billion since 2001, making Pakistan the largest recipient of U.S. assistance from the anti-terror Coalition Support Fund, said a report by Washington-based nonprofit Center for Public Integrity in May 2007. The Pentagon commented that Saturday’s events would not affect the flow of aid towards Pakistan’s anti-terrorism program.

“The U.S. government knew, of course [about Musharraf’s plan],” said a source from Lahore. “He had their blessings. And they also told Musharraf to be prepared for some ‘verbal diarrhea’ on their part. After all, they have to support democracy.”

Some Pakistani bloggers have even compared the situation with Operation Ajax, the 1953 US-orchestrated coup that re-instated the Shah in Iran.

But the commentator in Islamabad said that the coup was Musharraf’s idea. “He sold it to them [the U.S.].” And for whatever reasons, they decided to buy it.

Crackdown

While Musharraf’s first coup was greeted with indifference, even relief by people on the streets, this time round it’s different. And the General has chosen a different method to respond.

No sooner was emergency declared that armed police convoys arrived at the homes of top political opposition leaders like Imran Khan, President of Tehreek-e-Insaaf, Aitzaz Ahsan, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, heads of the Islamist party JUI , Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and several other members of the judiciary who had refused to take oath under Musharraf’s Provisional Constitutional Order – all individuals considered critical of Musharraf and his administration. Telephone lines in Islamabad were down for a few hours during Saturday night, though telecommunications in the rest of the major cities remained intact and people were able to call within cities and from overseas to ask about relatives’ and friends’ safety.

Imran Khan was live on the phone with CNN while two-dozen police officers swarmed his Islamabad home. “They are perfectly friendly,” he told CNN anchor Ralitsa Vassileva. “They just have orders not to let me ‘get away’.”

Later, Khan and other leaders under house arrest were taken to unidentified jail cells, some to Adiala Prison in Rawalpindi, where they still remain. Khan, a former cricket-star, escaped by scaling the wall of his house and is now in hiding.

On Sunday morning, at least 500 people were arrested in various cities, said Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, an overwhelming majority being lawyers demonstrating outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad, and dozens of judges and civil society activists ambushed directly at their homes. In Lahore, a peaceful meeting outside the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) was broken up by 200 baton-and-rifle-wielding police and scores of men and women were detained, including Asma Jehangir, prominent lawyer and chairperson of the HRCP, and two professors from the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Many protestors were released after a few hours or by Sunday night, but many were also removed to prison cells, and about 1500 people are still on a list of “preventive arrests”, according to a CNN report.

“These people represent a threat to future law and order,” a government spokesperson was quoted saying in an article in The New York Times.

In another interesting turn of events, the Pakistani government on Sunday freed 25 militants in exchange for the release of 213 army personnel who had been held hostage in the turbulent tribal area of South Waziristan for more than two months. The hostage-swap casts serious doubt on General Musharraf’s claim that the emergency was enforced to combat escalating terrorism.

But many in Pakistan and around the world didn’t buy that line anyway. Time Magazine believes that, “Far from a solution to Pakistan’s problems, Musharraf’s move to consolidate power has plunged the country into a deeper constitutional crisis and is likely to unleash a wave of new attacks by Al Qaeda-inspired militants, further destabilizing a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror.”

One hopes that that dismal prediction will not to be realized, but the future is uncertain.

Uncertainty

Twenty-four hours after President Musharraf declared emergency rule from Islamabad, Pakistanis do not know what’s going to happen next.

“Musharraf’s blatant disregard for the law shocking,” said Shireen, a 23-year old law student at LUMS (name changed to protect privacy). Her classmates are going to a protest Monday morning at the High Court in Lahore, but Shireen said it wouldn’t be wise. “There are bound to be arrests.”

Shireen also feels that the Musharraf’s proclamation will only worsen the violence the country has seen in recent months.

By Sunday night, her professor, Bilal Minto, had still not been released.

Though the lives of common people remain unaffected on the surface – many even deem Musharraf’s move was necessary, if not desirable, given the current situation – there are some obvious changes to routine. The most obvious is the sudden resort to newspapers and the Internet for information in the face of the very inconvenient ban on local and international private TV channels, including Geo, ARY, CNN and BBC.

Otherwise, excepting the police raids and arbitrary detentions, life goes on almost normally in most parts of the country – so far. People prepare to go to work and to school on Monday, but they also prepare to protest. College campuses and student and activist groups nation-wide are planning to commemorate “Black Days” on November 5th in opposition to the emergency and the extra-judicial arrests of distinguished public figures and intellectuals. Outside the country, Pakistanis tensely hang on to Web updates and broadcasts, reading and re-reading news reports with a pain in their hearts that only immigrants know.

With Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s announcement that the emergency measures could continue “for as long as necessary” and the crucial general elections scheduled for January 15th could be postponed for another year, according to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, the question on everybody’s mind is, what will the morrow bring?

How long will Musharraf survive? Will he become the dictator and suffer another spell of military rule on an already soldier-trampled country, or will he acquiesce to the demands of the domestic and international community and reinstate the constitution? Will a hero rise from the disillusioned ashes to champion a tattering green-and-white flag, or will old guard Bhutto be triumphant in her manipulated return? Will there be a showdown? Who will prevail?

And what of the ubiquitous “militants”, the “terrorists” who suddenly mushroomed across the country, from the beautiful valleys of Swat to the heart of the modern capital, since that horrible day, September 11th?

What will be their next move?

Nobody can say – yet, as there is a history behind them, a complicated history that goes back longer than 6 or 8 years, so there is a history behind Musharraf’s actions on November 3rd and Bhutto and America’s alleged involvement that is yet unclear. One thing seems certain – no Pakistani can afford to remain apathetic for long.

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