November Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

All martial laws are meant to seize power and to dislodge the incumbent. But not what critics are calling General Pervez Musharraf’s second martial law: although the general says this was done to ensure the implementation of the third stage of the transition to democracy, it is being argued that this has been imposed to cement the existing political order that revolves around him.

The extreme move that suspended the constitution and puts curbs on dissent and criticism — the media, the judiciary, social and political activists — is arguably the most unique in the country’s history. General Musharraf has imposed the emergency against his own government, rationalising his act on grounds that essentially amount to a self-indictment!

Ostensibly, the emergency plan was in the works for months. Sources close to the general indicate that the first time the option was seriously debated was on the eve of the Supreme Court’s verdict that reinstalled Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as Supreme Court chief justice. Some of the military advisors told the president that “enough is enough” and that Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry “will be up to no good in the coming days and will hinder the presidential elections,” highly placed sources have told Newsline.

The president apparently considered the idea with keen intent, but eventually shelved it temporarily. “We wanted to see how the judiciary acted and whether they cooperated with us or not on critical matters involving political stability and national security. However, they showed no signs of flexibility, and we had to flex our muscles,” says a presidential aide with access to inside information.

But, even then, the final decision to put the country under martial law (euphemistically compressed into the twin phrases of emergency and Provisional Constitutional Order) came about after much consultation, and its most intimate details, ironically were first shared with Washington, London and Saudi Arabia. Diplomatic sources confirm that a week before the day of the decision, these world capitals were told about the “possibility of General Musharraf travelling this path.” According to these sources, the reasoning proferred by the general was no different from what he narrated in his speech on the night of November 3. “His mantra is that Pakistan, at this juncture, is going off track in the war against terrorism and that he has to jump too many hoops to get his decisions implemented,” a western diplomat told Newsline.

Similar conversations also took place between General Musharraf and the chief of the US central command, Admiral William Fallon, when the latter visited Pakistan a day before the constitution was derailed. Reportedly, General Musharraf insisted that the world “does not understand the peculiar situation in Pakistan” and that “there is no other way I can stabilise the country and fight terrorism.”

Diplomatic sources reveal that even Saudi persuasions did not convince the military ruler to change his mind.

coup-2-nov07“Let me put it this way. The US administration is very unhappy with the general’s foot-dragging on the war against terrorism. His latest ruse (not having enough power) for the lacklustre performance doesn’t cut it. Around 11 billion dollars is a lot of money in aid and questions are being raised back home that if Al Qaeda has not been prevented from taking root in Pakistan’s tribal belt and the settled areas, then this dough has been wasted. But at this point in time, the administration is willing to give him a limited chance to experiment further,” says an Islamabad-based source, who did not wish to be identified.

But, even then, Washington’s response has been stern. The Pentagon, the State Department and the White House have all spoken in unison with the rest of the world in demanding a return to normal political life.

The postponement of the scheduled meeting of the Pakistan-US Defence Consultative Group, an important institutional framework for fine-tuning core bilateral defence co-operation matters, and repeated references to revising all aid arrangements, including the sale of the F-16 aircraft, are intended to tell the general that world patience with him is running out.

“When the US takes a public position, it has to be taken seriously. And the position, at present, is that the emergency is not acceptable and neither would any plans to postpone the elections,” said a diplomatic source in response to claims by General Musharraf’s close aides that Washington’s support was as firm as before.

Sources close to the policy-making ring around the general maintain that they had “factored in foreign displeasure, but in the end there was consensus that Washington does not have much of a choice in Pakistan other than to back Musharraf.”

“The other factor that balanced concerns of international disapproval is the confidence that members of his core team gave him about their ability to finish off the main sources of terrorism in the country. The assumption is that an improved performance on the counter-terrorism front would throttle criticism of domestic changes,” says the source.

One of the general’s political advisors explained this oozing confidence: “We have explained to Benazir Bhutto that the judiciary had to be cleansed of conniving judges because they were also going to strike down the National Reconciliation Order and undermine her political future.”

While Peoples Party leaders deny any prior understanding with the general’s men over the imposition of the second martial law, they do admit that Benazir Bhutto was one of the first to be told about the shape of things to come.

One party source says that prompting Benazir Bhutto’s departure to Dubai was the news that the general had made up his mind to impose a state of emergency; later, Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ibad personally conveyed the details of the measure, with the assurance that “elections will take place on time and the general does not intend to use the constitutional hiatus to renege on his promises.”

These source claim that even though Benazir Bhutto is highly sceptical, she has refrained from lashing out against this extreme measure.

Interestingly, the top tier of the Pakistan Muslim League, the ruling party, too, has been given similar assurances about the elections taking place on schedule.

“We knew that the emergency was to be imposed because one of our judges on the panel had told the president that the forthcoming decision on his elections was going to be unanimously against him. The president then made up his mind that he would take the extreme step of holding the constitution in abeyance and assuming charge,” a top League source told Newsline.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) also was on board regarding the measure and so was the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), claimed the same source. Yet this entire range of support hinges on a promise many suspect the general might not be able to keep: timely elections.

The League’s heavy hitters are distressed at the signals the General’s confidants are sending about the elections.

“There is a group of people who have come from the backdoor, mostly senators led by the prime minister, who do not want the elections to take place on time. These people want to perpetuate themselves in power and know that as long as President Musharraf is in uniform, their political fortunes are intact. These opportunists are the ones who are misleading him,” remarked a League source.

The same source also said that both Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Chaudhry Pervaiz Ellahi have insisted that the general should stick to the election schedule.

“We are ready as never before and have done our homework for the electoral battle. A delay now is likely to throw everything out of gear and set back the preparation process. We might not get into this rhythm again,” informed the source.

coup-3-nov07That may be so, but the League’s insistence on timely elections is also based on more hard-nosed considerations. The most important of these is that a year down the line, General Musharraf’s fate looks extremely uncertain. The ‘election-now’ group of the League wants to cash in on his incumbency because they believe that their arch-rival, the People’s Party, is ill-prepared at this moment and would not be able to contest with full force. Ironically, the PPP, too, is counting on the same set of assumptions: that a politically potent Musharraf would be able to deliver on his promise of holding elections on time and allow the party to swing back into the mainstream.

“Any delay in the election is a recipe for disaster, and this is what we have told Mohtarma as well. Later, a weakened Musharraf would be hard put to protect his own interests, let alone make good on his commitments to us,” said a member of the PPP’s central executive committee.

But the mood in the general’s camp is swinging in another direction. There is a sense that the general is already over the hump and has defeated his two main opponents: the media and the judiciary. “The most difficult decision has already been taken and society has digested it. Why not use this power to do the things that could not be done when the media was hounding us everywhere and the judiciary was stonewalling and disrupting on every count? Why not maximize this advantage that President Musharraf has,” says one of the general’s close aides, who admits that while initially he had his doubts, General Musharraf now believes that he did the right thing by cleansing the judiciary and choking off the media.

But life is seldom as simple as one visualises — and especially for a man who is sitting upon a mountain of explosive problems. The more immediate set of these problems relates to the general’s increasing isolation abroad. His 2007 coup model has destroyed his own argument of being a champion of democracy. It has embarrassed his international backers who, for years, justified their support to him on the delicate argument that he was an agent of democratic change in a nuclear-armed Pakistan. As world pressure mounts, the general might find himself sinking deeper into the domestic quagmire. It is pertinent to recall that all of Pakistan’s military rulers, Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul-Haq, faded from the scene without a murmur of regret from their international friends and masters.

The second set of problems relates to the legal bind in which the general has put himself and his allies. It took the entire legal and political community eight years to come to terms with the consequences of his 1999 coup and, even then, the scars that the constitutional deviation left on the system were to deep to ignore. Now that he has held the constitution in abeyance, once again, and virtually imposed martial law, the legal tangle that this has created will take a long time to sort out.

Further, by allowing his administration to crack down on all dissent and silence critics, he has alienated every one of the country’s liberal and moderate constituents. Incidentally, even the sale and installation of satellite dishes to downlink broadcasts of channels otherwise banned and blacked out for domestic viewers has now been declared a crime entailing heavy fine. And this he is doing at a time when the militants, backed by Al Qaeda, are openly defying the fragmented state authority and bringing their battle to the urban centres of Pakistan.

As a western diplomat who heard his long explanation for the emergency put it succinctly, “He had the chance to be remembered as a uniformed democrat; instead, he chose to adopt the path of a dictator.”

For now, it seems, General Musharraf is not unduly bothered.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.