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Amy Wilentz

Amy Wilentz

Posted: October 18, 2007 06:59 PM

Bhutto Bombs


Well, now Benazir Bhutto is back with a vengeance. It's like the old days in Pakistan, but worse. After today's bombings, Bhutto's iron will to remain in Pakistan has probably been strengthened. I went to interview her recently in Dubai for More magazine, and it was clear she would not be deterred by any such hijinks, though she was obviously worried. Her daughter was in the next room writing college applications.

But one does wonder who exactly was behind the attack. In the short time since her arrival on Pakistani soil, Bhutto has managed to thank the Pakistani Army both for protecting her and her supporters on their arrival, and for not thwarting or disrupting the celebrations accompanying her return. Certainly those two ideas say a lot about the ambivalence of the Pakistani Army concerning Bhutto: thanks for protecting me and thanks for not attacking me.

And it's not really about ambivalence, but speaks more about an institution with two faces. Part of the Pakistani Army is moderate and Western-looking in an old-fashioned way -- Musharraf seems to have put his money on that side for now. But another part has long sympathized with the neighboring Taliban and other fundamentalist strains, including al Qaeda.

A recent poll found 46 percent of the Pakistani people favorable to bin Laden; which means, as a friend said after the bombings, that if Benazir has, say, 10,000 people guarding her, then 4,600 of them support bin Laden, from whose influence she has vowed to remove her country.

But even if Bhutto survives her plunge back into the cauldron of Pakistani politics, can she really do much for Pakistan? Poverty there is worse than ever -- on a daily basis, people commit suicide in order to escape from hunger and their inability to feed their families. While she was prime minister, her administration was more notable for its corruption than for curing Pakistan's ills. Perhaps now, without her notoriously corrupt husband in tow, she'll be able to lift her head above the cloud of corruption that's followed her for these long years, but given the money that must be spent to wage what amounts to a war on the rogue fundamentalist city -- states that have been established within Pakistan's borders, it's not going to be easy to do much about pocketbook issues for the average Pakistani.

And as for democracy. Sure, Bhutto would like Pakistan to be democratic. As long as she's the head of state. She has that tendency of all populist politicians (of her father, in particular) to equate the state with herself. Even before the bombs went off today, you could pretty safely say that the euphoria of her return would guarantee her election, but now -- given the attack -- her victory is virtually assured.

Before the bombs, she was a complicated character for many Pakistanis. They were wary of her reputation, concerned about her power-deal with the reviled Musharraf, quite aware that her two previous administrations had achieved very little, and worried about her supposed autocratic tendencies. But in the face of this assassination attempt, people will tend to gulp, and to notice what they might lose in losing the person of Benazir Bhutto. Her death might mean an end to dynastic politics in Pakistan, which would be good (although there are Bhuttos galore -- if not of so lofty a caliber -- lined up to fill any power vacuum they can find). But the loss of a figure who in so many ways represents the desire for some kind of future middle ground for Pakistan would really be devastating. Bhutto's return has changed in a day all the terms of the debate.

And the attempt on her life, in which so many were killed and injured, has at least for a while turned her from just another hack politician, seeking power, back into what she was at the beginning of her political career: a beloved symbol of Pakistan, and precious. .