Not a humble man

General Pervez Musharraf is becoming quite the embarrassment for Southasia, as an autocrat who thinks he can get away with hurling untenable accusations against the high judiciary, and making bald pronouncements that go against the democratic, pluralistic order. Seeking to retain power through the bogey of fundamentalism and insurgency while banking on the decades of near-continuous military control of Pakistani society, the general dares to exhibit certitude and arrogance rather than the statesman's humility.

Appearing on state-owned PTV on 3 November, the day he invoked the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO), Gen Musharraf took time out to tell the Western world that it was unrealistic to expect the same type and quality of democracy in Pakistan as overseas. Inherent in that argument was a breathtaking denigration of the Pakistani people, as if they did not deserve the democracy practiced by 'civilised' society. Indeed, we beg to defer with the presidente-generalissimo: the citizens of Pakistan have every right to the basic tenets of representative democracy – including free, fair and timely elections; government by consent; the protection of fundamental freedoms; and an army confined to the barracks. If all this is inconvenient to the general, he should at least desist from maligning his own citizenry through false justifications.

The naked clampdown on the Pakistani media has also indicated the value system that guides Gen Musharraf. Some have credited him in the past for being relatively lenient on the press. But the fact is that, during and following his 1999 coup, he had never had to face any real threat from the media. This time, when both the print and electronic media became vociferously critical of the PCO and the imposition of the state of emergency, the general showed his true colours. He seemed most perturbed by the independence of the popular Urdu-language news channels, which is why the undeclared martial-law administration went after them with a vengeance – to the extent even of inveighing upon the Dubai authorities to prevent any uplinking from there.

The 1999 coup was against the political parties, but the November 2007 situation was in a real sense a coup conducted against the judiciary. When it became clear that the upright (and reinstated, against the regime's best efforts) Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and his panel of justices would hand down a judgement against his election to the presidency, the general decided to act, and quickly. He blamed the judges for having encouraged terrorism and invited anarchy, and put them under house arrest – while simultaneously packing the Supreme Court and the provincial high courts with quisling judges expected to stamp any piece of paper put before them.

Beset movement
The battle that has been fought by the people of Pakistan to reinstate democracy has been too long, and the terrain becomes more complex by the day. As far as the public's attitude regarding autocratic rule goes, its rejection has been made clear repeatedly in the past – against Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto and Zia ul-Huq. Even today, if the question merely involved rejecting the autocracy of Gen Musharraf, there would probably be an immediate mass movement.

Unfortunately, the possibilities of a peaceful people's movement are obstructed in Pakistan today by several factors. Foremost among these is the fact that the tentacles of military control penetrate deep into the Pakistani society and economy, and there are too many elite interests invested in the armed forces to allow the people's voice free rein. At the same time, democratic structures have been weakened and uncertainties exacerbated over six decades of military rule, because army control does little more than bottle up frustrations until they explode at a later date.

In addition, the hold of religious extremism has not diminished. There is a war on in Waziristan that is linked to the Taliban and the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, as well as simmering anger in Balochistan, where people are smarting in the absence of a true federal structure. The sudden flare-up in nearby Swat is epitomised by the excruciating images of attacks by Cobra helicopter gunships, something that one would hope no government would ever carry out against its own people.

Meanwhile, the US's interest in propping up the Musharraf regime – to tackle the Taliban and engage in the never-ending search for Osama bin Laden – unfortunately exceeds its interest in seeing democracy prosper in Pakistan. And thus, the acts and omissions of Uncle Sam represent one more challenge confronting Pakistan's activists, currently engaged in peaceful dissent against Gen Musharraf and seeking to ignite a people's movement.

Political leadership needed
For now, Pakistan's judges, journalists and lawyers are the guardians of the people's interest, keeping the flame of liberty and civil rights burning even as Gen Musharraf blows with all his might to snuff it out. They know that a full-fledged people's movement for the restoration of democracy will not occur until the political parties become energetically involved. Unfortunately, the extended exile of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif has weakened their respective parties, while their unwillingness to unite even in adversity has meant the neglect of the people.

The power of political parties to bring crowds onto the streets of Pakistan was proven by the lakhs who greeted Benazir Bhutto when she returned from exile on 18 October. But then the blasts happened at the massive rally, taking the lives of nearly 140 people. It has not been remarked upon enough, that the Karachi killings of 18 October were a dagger to the heart of the democratic mobilisation. There can only be one response to the perpetrators of those blasts: for the PPP, PML-N and other parties not to be cowed, and to proceed to organise mass rallies, which are vital to the politics of Southasia.

It was important for Pakistan's mainstream political parties to unite under the umbrella of the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM), and to decide to reject the 8 January elections. That would have been the best harbinger of a true people's movement, the goals of which should be the restoration of the Constitution of 1973, the reinstatement of the judges summarily removed on 3 November, and the installation of an independent caretaker government to organise general elections – as we understand them, not as Gen Musharraf does.

In the days ahead, we will either see a people's movement generate steam from the flames that are already lit. Or we will see the political parties fail to unite – leading to a dissipation of their individual energies, and ultimately a fraud on the people, as the politicians look for a way to cohabitate with Gen Musharraf. With news coming in as we go to press that Benazir Bhutto and her PPP are dithering on the matter of the 8 January elections, hopes for a powerful movement hang in balance. As for the general, he is more than willing to engage with parties that compromise on principle, which would ensure him the power and immunity of five more years as president. And by the grace of George W Bush, he would not at all mind serving as the Hosni Mubarak of Southasia.

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