Pakistan on the brink

2007-11-26 00:00

Pakistan’s current options were concisely evaluated by one Mohammad Sohail of Islamabad in a posting on the BBC website last Saturday. Under the heading “Current Pakistan Sanario” [Scenario], he listed the possible outcomes of the present crisis in reverse order of desirability.

1. Talibanisation — worst-case sanario.

2. Benazir Bhutto — worse case sanario.

3. Nawaz Sharif — very, very bad case sanario.

4. Other Political Leaders — very bad case sanario.

5. Musharraf — bad-case sanario.

6. Power to the people — the best case sanario.

Nobody doubts that “Talibanisation” — the seizure of power by radical Islamist militants who would turn Pakistan into a giant replica of nineties Afghanistan — would be the worst-case scenario. It would be dreadful for the long-suffering people of Pakistan and it would trigger a dangerous international crisis as the United States, Indian and possibly Iranian forces launched rapid-reaction attacks aimed at keeping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons out of the hands of the crazies.

Ranking another Bhutto prime ministership as the next-worst outcome is more debatable, but perhaps Sohail was thinking about the monumental corruption that marred both of Bhutto’s previous terms in office (and ultimately provided the pretext for her removal from office).

The Bhutto family’s worldwide assets have been estimated at $1,5 billion.

Or maybe what troubled our intrepid guide to contemporary Pakistani politics was the fact that Bhutto’s dramatic return from years of self-exile was really stage-managed by the United States government. Washington saw that the general [Musharraf], a close and generally obedient ally in its “war on terror” was losing his grip on power and calculated that an alliance with Bhutto could save him. The negotiations between Musharraf and Bhutto, which envisaged the former as a civilian president and the latter as prime minister, lasted for many months, but Washington was never able to extract two key commitments from the general. One was that he would take off his uniform and relinquish command of the army. The other was that he would give up the president’s constitutionally entrenched power to dismiss the prime minister. So Bhutto came home without a deal — but the current confrontation between her and the general is largely shadow-boxing. The made-in-America deal could still happen, and that enrages lots of Pakistanis.

Then there is Nawaz Sharif, head of the other large opposition party and also twice removed from the prime ministership, most recently by Musharraf himself in 1999. He also tried to come home from exile last month, but since he was not a potential collaborator Musharraf had him expelled again. The odour of corruption hangs as heavily about Sharif as it does around Bhutto, but Sohail gives him a slightly better rating as merely a “very very bad case sanario”.

We can pass quickly over “other political leaders” and likewise over the general himself, who is not going to be running Pakistan much longer unless he can make a deal with someone that gives his regime some democratic legitimacy. That is why, having declared emergency rule on November 3, locked up most opposition leaders and shut down TV news channels, he still promises that there will be parliamentary elections before January 9.

Which brings us to Sohail’s last best case: “power to the people”. I don’t know what he really means, so let me offer my own interpretation. What began this crisis was the revolt of the lawyers against Musharraf’s interference with the independence of the supreme court. What precipitated the state of emergency was his fear that the supreme court would rule his own “re-election” as president invalid because he had not resigned as army chief of staff. This confrontation is really about the rule of law and that is where Pakistan’s salvation lies.

Democracy without the rule of law is a farce. With the rule of law, it can even withstand politicians as corrupt as Bhutto and Sharif and generals as opportunistic as Musharraf, because in the end the law will deal with them. Pakistan’s politics have been bitterly disappointing for most of its history because there was no determination to uphold the primacy of the law, but now its judges and its lawyers are finally taking their role seriously. This crisis could still end well.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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