The Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, has -- if he wants -- the option of taking the initiative to save Pakistan from chaos and unrest and save his personal reputation and legacy from the stain of his recent adventures at the expense of the democratic process. He is a smart man who is able to think in new ways, realistically, and "outside the box," i.e. different than the ways that are customary to the Pakistani experience. He's in a situation that enables him to maintain his influence over the future of his country, in the estimates of local and international observers, and not be forced to leave power due to the anger of the public as well as allies, friends and enemies. The key to this involves a national unity government made up of technocrats, as the beginning of a process of radical political change in Pakistan. This would see the military act as the chief guardian of the state, while the political process is liberated from the formula of "either feudalists or officers." General Musharraf can stay in uniform, which he once called a second skin, if he decides to give up the presidency. He can then run in elections after playing the role of the godfather of the new political process after deciding to give up his military uniform. But he can no longer continue to retain his title as the general-president for another term. Musharraf has crossed some dangerous lines on the domestic Pakistani scene and regarding the country's relations with the west and particularly the United States, which has given Pakistan $10 billion since the war on terror began in 2001. He has pushed western leaders, and especially US President George W Bush, into an embarrassing corner and forced them to choose.
Musharraf has succeeded in launching a wave of frightening anger at the popular level and has helped shed light on the Pakistani military institution, which contains many elements. Musharraf has perhaps given the al-Qaida network and its like the impression that they have a chance to revive their "popularity," while unleashing an alliance of judges, lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, students and university professors against him. Thus, Pervez Musharraf can now only think outside the box to save himself and save Pakistan from implosion. This requires key international leaders to avoid publicly embarrassing him and giving him encouragement to take a new path, with determination. This means that these leaders must also think outside the box and leave behind the formula of either submitting to what Pervez Musharraf dictates because he is indispensable, or challenging him produce a surprise.
The Pakistani military represents one of the most dangerous combinations of extremist military rule and extremist religious fanaticism; it rules with a combination of greed and corruption. It sits upon nuclear weapons in a nervous country; most of its million inhabitants are poor and semi-illiterate. The military has been penetrated by extremist ideologues who deeply hate the west (particularly the US) and want to revive their assistance to the Mujahideen and the Taliban. Historians date the close relationship between the Taliban and other extremist Islamists and the Pakistani Army to the 1980s, during the era of General Zia Haqq, who launched the campaign to "Islamicize Pakistani society and the armed forces in particular," as the New York Times writer Mohammed Hanif put it. Hanif notes that graduates of this "academy" of extremism at the time are today officers who run the country and that General Musharraf heads this army which he is reluctant to abandon, not just for ideological reasons, but also because the armed forces that are under his leadership have become "an empire" of interests stretching from banks to markets. Hanif adds that General Musharraf is forming the impression in the west that he alone is able to preserve the country and argues that he will be followed only by chaos and unrest; the fact is that while he has put lawyers and teachers behind bars while the suicide attackers roam free, we must "re-define the meaning of anarchists."
During his press appearance on Wednesday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, President George W Bush answered a question about Musharraf with obvious irritation with the general. He said that he had called him and said, "my message was very plain, very easy to understand, and that is, the United States wants you to have the elections as scheduled and take your uniform off," meaning that he should give up his post as the commander of the Army.
On the same day, Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte announced that Washington had no option other than to remain loyal to its commitments toward Pakistan, despite Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency, and said that "we cannot afford to return to our past estrangement." Negroponte reiterated what Bush had already said, namely that he considered Musharraf an indispensable ally in the war against terror, and adding that "partnership with Pakistan and its people is the only option" for the United States. The balance of threats and reassurances in the comments by Bush and Negroponte was both important and necessary, since it isn't useful to plunge into spreading fear about a vacuum if Musharraf leaves his posts to affirm the de facto situation of his transgressing constitutional customs and avoiding a confrontation with determination. It's not at all healthy for the US to repeat earlier experiences, which will enhance Washington's reputation of having no friend that it wouldn't be ready to betray or abandon.
Washington is walking a fine line, with caution and precision. The best thing it can do is to find a way to notify President Musharraf that he enjoys the initiative to make Pakistani history and at the same time create a new history for himself. Washington has ways to influence Musharraf; it can behave with considerable wisdom so that it doesn't insult the general and unintentionally unleash the anger of the Pakistani military, whether the faction that is angry at the country's lawyers, the faction that hates the United States, or the faction that hates everything represented by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her era in office. Bhutto might not be as smart and cunning as Musharraf, but she can rally the masses and take advantage of the mistakes of others. None of this might bring the votes necessary to elect her prime minister, if and when there are elections, due to reasons having to do with the history of her rule and the corruption that characterized it, and particularly her husband, who was famous for taking high commissions. However, Bhutto is ready to build on this moment, pregnant with possibility of surprises, and thus has returned to Pakistan to stand in the trenches with the lawyers, who are trying to overturn Musharraf. The army is not with her and the country does not trust her rule, but Bhutto is ready for a surprise.
Technically, the return of Bhutto to office will require amending the Constitution, which does not now allow for a third term as prime minister. Bhutto can say that the military rule has changed the Constitution to prevent a third term, but practically speaking, her taking the office will require changing the Constitution once again.
Bhutto believes, as she said in an article in the New York Times on Wednesday, that Pakistan is ruled today by a military dictatorship that has colluded with intelligence organizations in order to suspend the Constitution and indefinitely postpone elections. She described Musharraf's actions last Sunday as the blackest day in the history of Pakistan, and said that the US should inform General Musharraf that it will not accept martial law, that it expects him to hold free and fair elections with international observers within 60 days, and that it was putting him before two options: democracy, or dictatorship and isolation. She said the majority of Pakistanis were moderates and expressed her hope that the moderates would united to "marginalize both the dictators and the extremists, to restore civilian rule to the presidency and to shut down political madrassas, the Islamic schools that stock weapons and preach violence."
Pakistan's problem is that it has become a religious regime ruled by the military. Thus, it constitutes the worst nightmare for the ranks of moderates, wherever they are: a failed state ruled by the military, with religious extremism, a mostly illiterate, poor and exploitable population, and possessing a nuclear bomb.
Turkey represents the antithesis of this; a secular army that guards its country while the political institution exercises democracy and competition over power, by virtue of the Constitution and an electoral process. Where General Musharraf has failed, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan has been victorious thanks to the skill brought to civilian rule by moderate Islamists - their wives might wear the hijab, but their policies are relatively open.
Musharraf has not closed the religious schools, which he has and continues to establish himself. He has not empowered civil institutions, while he has advocated and continues to advocate democracy. His failure to build civil institutions is also the failure of the United States, and particularly the Bush administration, which has missed the opportunity to monitor the democratic process, as it's up to its neck in the "war on terror." Thus, the US has done what it's always done: fail to supervise.
Pakistanis who know the climate in the country say that the people now just want a clean government and a leadership that stops draining the country's resources for the sake of personal enrichment. They say that Pakistan has suffered from "successive failed options." They say that Bhutto doesn't know how to run the country, just an election campaign, calling her the princess of popular strength. They say that some lawyers take themselves very seriously and some have political ambitions due to the publicity they have received. They warn of quick deals, while Pakistan now needs a civilian democratic process after "security"-based rule has shown itself unable to rule at the end of the day. They say that there's no need, after Musharraf, for another "dictator-democrat" general who is a miniature version of him. There is a need for a national unity government and a time-table that leads to elections.
For all of these reasons, Musharraf is a part of the country's future and is not yet obsolete. It's up to him to find a way to carry out the promises of the past, now. Musharraf is part of the treatment, if he wants there to be a treatment of the situation. But he is not a long-term solution in and of himself. He holds the initiative and should be encouraged. The future does not belong to him alone, if he fails to think outside the box, and immediately.
This piece was originally posted here.