Musharraf and His Collaborators

by S. Akbar Zaidi

Download this essay as a PDF (40KB)

So much for President General Pervez Musharraf’s policy of moderate enlightenment. Or was it, enlightened moderation? One forgets. Whatever it was, it is probably buried under the events of the past few months following the announcement of the Emergency/Martial Law in Pakistan. It is not just that an Emergency has been enforced in Pakistan which is of importance, but its nature and form, are also of considerable interest.

The fact that the Supreme Court has been attacked by General Pervez Musharraf, and the Judges removed and/or asked to take a new oath, was perhaps the most expected response to any potential extra-constitutional move to be taken by the General. With the Supreme Court expected to rule on whether President General Musharraf was eligible to contest the election for President of Pakistan (after ha had actually done so, one must add), there was growing speculation, that the Court could rule against him. There are few people if any, laypersons or analysts, who believe that Musharraf has imposed the Emergency for any “national interest,” as he proclaimed, and there is agreement that this step was taken exclusively to save his own skin, and uniform.

The fact that the lawyers, who have become the vanguard in a popular struggle against Musharraf, would be targeted, was also probably expected. After 9 March this year when the Chief Justice of Pakistan was first removed, the main opposition in the streets of Pakistan, came from the lawyers all across Pakistan. That movement from March to September, was a popular protest against the interference of the President-General in the affairs of the highest judiciary. The lawyers first protested the removal of the Chief Justice, and occasionally the movement began to verbally attack the military as well. Importantly, political parties did not play a role of any significance in the lawyers’ protests, and hence their movement always remained popular rather than political.

Occasionally, in the protests this year, the heavy handed arm of the military state also fell upon the media, particularly the electronic media which was reporting live, almost every public event of the Chief Justice and all his meetings. Media persons were roughed up and some television stations were ransacked by the police, all captured live on television. All forms of protest in the country were being beamed live for all to participate in. The current clampdown has this major difference, that for at least the first eight days, all private television channels, including those broadcasting news and analysis, sports, music, and even food programmes, were completely banned. Even international news channels have been blocked.

This attack on the media by the General-President affirms two things. Firstly, that this is an intolerant, dictatorial, repressive, regime, which has no patience with dissent, and for whom moderate enlightenment has very different meanings than it does for most people. And, secondly, the recognition that the media now plays a major role in reporting events, and perhaps even forming public opinion. The electronic media has certainly arrived, and plays a critical role in the public sphere in Pakistan. Hence, it too, must now be controlled. How it emerges from the stringent fetters being imposed on it, will be one of the many interesting sites of struggle that will mark the immediate future of Pakistan.

The last eight years, certainly till March this year, had made many well-intentioned Pakistanis forget that President Pervez Musharraf was actually a General who is the Chief of Army Staff and that Pakistan was ruled by the army. Musharraf’s demeanour and his clever posturing, both at home and particularly abroad, as the champion at the frontline state in the war against terrorism, resulted in the so-called Pakistani liberal elites supporting a President in uniform. They were quick to put aside the fact that Pakistan was ruled by an anti-democratic military General, on the grounds that he was a “liberal”, and was a westernised and enlightened man. In October 1999, when Musharraf overthrew a democratically elected Prime Minister, many of Pakistan’s “civil society” representatives rushed to welcome him with open arms, and many even collaborated and joined his cabinet. Following 9/11, all contradictions for civil society in supporting a military general, were quickly replaced by his so-called “liberal” credentials in the fight against Talibanisation and fundamentalism, both on Pakistan’s border, but importantly, also at home.

The present crisis in Pakistan’s politics, and it is indeed quite severe and on multiple fronts, has not been caused by the military or by General Musharraf alone. One expects the military to behave undemocratically and dictatorially. It does not represent civil society and nor does it have any ambitions or need, to bring about a real democratic transition. That is the task of civil society, liberal and most importantly, political actors and parties. Pakistan’s civil society and its liberal elite has been concerned only with Musharraf’s “lifestyle” liberal policies, and in the process, have ignored his antidemocratic, highly politically illiberal, stance. The choice for them has been “liberalism”, where their lifestyles are protected, at the cost of democracy. This large, articulate and influential segment has been a key constituency in support of General Musharraf for much of these last seven years and a key factor in his largely untroubled longevity.

The Emergency has revealed the truth not just about Musharraf’s moderate enlightenment, but also about Pakistan’s liberal elite, as much as it has about the collaborationist and political leaders of Pakistan, most importantly, the antidemocratic leaders of the most popular political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party. At a time when General Musharraf’s regime was on its knees during the lawyers’ movement earlier this year, the leader of the Peoples party, Ms Benazir Bhutto, was cutting deals with General Musharraf in order to ensure her political future and fortune, a deal which was supposed to have rescued assets worth $1.5 billion through a “reconciliation” Ordinance promulgated by Musharraf. The popular lawyers movement failed to become political precisely because Ms Bhutto preferred to enter the political arena through the back door.

At a moment when the Musharraf regime is again weak and vulnerable, this time with criticism from western countries as well, the one person who can rescue him and his regime, is Ms Benazir Bhutto. So far, Ms Bhutto has moved rather softly in her criticism against President General Musharraf. She has made the right kind of noises against the imposition of the Emergency, but one week into it, nothing confrontational against Musharraf. Their earlier deal, now probably with higher stakes, required Musharraf to give up his military post if Benazir would become his Prime Minister. Beyond repeating that demand, she has gone no further. There has been nothing said against the military or the state, nothing against a retired Musharraf as President. Benazir Bhutto is the only politician of any stature who is free in Pakistan today, with all minor and important politicians detained. All roads are still open for a deal between the two, the military General, preferably retired, and a so-called democratic politician. Pakistan’s politics and its society, is about collaboration, not confrontation.

It is clear that both the General and the Prime Ministerial aspirant, are playing the waiting game, hoping that one gives in before the other, raising their own stakes. With Parliament to be dissolved and the Supreme Court to give its decisions about the Presidential elections, events will decide who plays what game. Ironically, despite collaborating with General Musharraf over the last few months and despite the antidemocratic stand taken by her, the choice rests more with Ms Bhutto than it does with General Musharraf. Ms Bhutto can agree to save General Musharraf’s political future by agreeing to cut another, better, deal with him and perpetuate military rule under a new arrangement. Or, she can, quite out of character, lead a truly democratic struggle, not just against the Emergency, but against General Musharraf and against military rule. However, whatever option she, or anyone else, chooses, Pakistan’s present political crisis is unlikely to be addressed in the short term.

The Emergency/Martial Law is a temporary measure, the presence of the army, a permanent problem. What is sad, is that most Pakistanis have now come to accept the state of military rule in Pakistan. Since 1999, things have moved comfortably for Musharraf, and only earlier this year, did he make his first big mistake. Prior to his sacking of the Chief Justice, there was virtually no opposition to Musharraf or his military government. General Musharraf could not have survived his tenure so smoothly without a large number of collaborators.

The crisis of Pakistan is not its Emergency or Martial Law, neither is it that a military man in uniform has ruled Pakistan as a comfortable authoritarianism without much protest or opposition. The tragedy of Pakistan is that its supposedly liberal and enlightened classes and even its political classes, are collaborators. For the liberals their concern is more with a lifestyle liberalism which Musharraf has promoted, rather than with a political liberalism, and for supposedly democratic, political actors, what matters is that somehow they get access to power. How they get there, is irrelevant.

Social Science Research Council - One Pierrepont Plaza, 15th Floor | Brooklyn, NY 11201 USA | P: 212.377.2700 | F: 212.377.2727 | E: info@ssrc.org