On 3 November, President-General Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan, suspended the interim constitution and essentially placed the Supreme Court of Pakistan under military arrest. His move has generated a crisis in the region with serious global implications.
Pakistan to this day remains one of the few Muslim states where democratic processes have taken root over the years. Even during those periods when Pakistan is governed by military dictators, as it is frequently (1958-70, 1978-88, 1999-present), it has always sustained a free press, free speech, active political parties and an independent judiciary. In a way, Pakistan is the opposite of an illiberal democracy – it is a liberal dictatorship. This ability to retain liberal political institutions even under military rule is an important characteristic to keep in mind as we watch the current sequence of political events in Pakistan.
General-President Musharraf’s declaration of emergency is essentially an attempt to pull a coup against an important liberal dimension of Pakistan – the independent judiciary. In October, Musharraf won the presidential elections while still Chief of the Pakistani military. According to Pakistan’s constitution, however, government employees cannot run for elections. Therefore, Musharraf cannot be the head of the military and still run for political office.
Before the Supreme Court was to give its decision on the constitutionality of Musharraf’s election as President, he declared emergency rule. He also laid siege to the Supreme Court, blacked out independent news media and detained those who had moved the Supreme Court to test his eligibility and the legality of his election.
In the last year, Musharraf’s popularity has diminished both in Washington and Pakistan, as he has become less and less useful both at home and abroad.
He has failed to curb the extremist violence that has claimed over 450 lives. Military campaigns in the tribal areas against Taliban supporters and at the Red Mosque have generated unprecedented amounts of resentment and anger against Musharraf. His critics see him now primarily as a Washington tool who does nothing but fight America’s War on Terror, viewed in Pakistan largely as a war against Islam.
Musharraf brought a degree of stability to society and gave impetus to its declining economy after the 1999 coup. His alliance with the Bush administration after 9/11 brought billions of dollars’ worth of military and economic aid to Pakistan. He also provided efficient and corruption-free governance thanks to the professionalism of the military.
The Pakistani population, however, has become used to the positive changes, forgotten the corruption and chaos under the previous democratic governments from 1988-1998, and are now dissatisfied with the turmoil resulting from Musharraf’s desperate efforts to retain power.
Even some of the secular elite who supported Musharraf’s undemocratic ways are becoming wary of his high-handedness. They appreciated his enlightened approach to Islam. They saw him as a force that while subverting democracy as it pertained to the presidency, nurtured a degree of secularism and religious freedom. But what they ultimately witnessed is more Islamic extremism.
To the outside world, Pakistan has become the frontline state against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and a major ally of America. The 1999 coup was described by many analysts as a coup against Washington since then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was seen as being too close to Washington and President Clinton. Until 2001, Musharraf was persona non grata in the West, but has since become the face of enlightened Islam and Muslim cooperation in America’s war against Islamic extremism.
In return, the United States provided military and economic aid and did not pressure him to restore democracy to Pakistan. But when two of the four provinces in Pakistan fell to parties promoting extreme versions of political Islam in state assembly elections, the dangers of instant democracy became apparent to Washington.
General Musharraf has not fully succeeded in suppressing Islamic militancy; Al Qaeda (according to the National Intelligence Council) has reconstituted itself to pre-11 September strength and the Taliban continue to wage their war against Western forces in Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan. Pakistan has steadily become the most critical state for American and Western security. Given the fact that it is a nuclear-armed state, the strategic significance of state failure or collapse in Pakistan is high.
In recent weeks, Washington has been facilitating a rapprochement with Benazir Bhutto that could enable Musharraf to make a transition to democracy and remain President with Bhutto as Prime Minister, sustaining a secular power alliance in Islamabad.
The declaration of emergency by Musharraf is his second coup, this one against Washington. It not only derails the latest effort to usher in democracy but also emboldens the new Taliban-style political opposition who recognise that by taking this aggressive step, the General himself has brought Pakistan to the tipping point. It remains to be seen if they can muster the capacity to go the distance.
Washington cannot – and will not – abandon Musharraf. Indeed his move, which brings Pakistan closer to collapse, forces Washington to stand behind him more firmly, albeit unhappily. In the end, the current crisis can be diffused, if an early rapprochement between Musharraf and the Pakistani Supreme Court can be arranged. It is here that Benazir Bhutto can play a role and re-establish herself as a major player both at home and in the eyes of Washington.