Perves Musharraf

Imagine yourself as Pervez Musharraf, the 64-year-old military ruler of Pakistan. As a young artillery officer, and later as a commando, you acquired a reputation for personal bravery–and for doing just as you pleased, whatever your orders. Your subsequent performance as a general and politician has been of a similar piece. In recent days, you have declared a state of emergency, imprisoned thousands of lawyers and civil society types, fired the Supreme Court and put its chief justice under house arrest, and shut down much of the independent media. You have done all this to keep your grip on power, all the while insisting you have “no personal ego and ambitions to guard.”
Abroad, the conventional wisdom is that you have shredded what little legitimacy you had and that your days, politically or otherwise, are numbered. You think they’re wrong. You’re probably right.
No doubt you are sensitive to the appearance of hypocrisy. In your self-applauding autobiography, “In the Line of Fire,” you wrote about former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as follows: “He threw many of his opponents, including editors, journalists and even cartoonists, into prison. He was really a fascist–using the most progressive rhetoric to promote regressive ends, the first of which was to stay in power forever.” Of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, you recalled how he “got his party goons to storm the Supreme Court building while the court was in session. . . . This was, to put it mildly, a very low point in Pakistani political history.” Concerning the efficacy of martial law, you said that “our past experience had amply demonstrated that martial law damages not only military but also civilian institutions.”
The way you see it, however, there’s just no comparing you to Pakistan’s past leaders. The elder Bhutto, his daughter Benazir, and Mr. Sharif were a trio of political mesmerists–aristocrats posing as populists–who enriched themselves and their friends to the tune of billions as they bankrupted the country. You are a refugee from partition, a man for whom Pakistan is a sanctuary that must be preserved at all cost. You have raised your family on a soldier’s wages. Nobody can accuse you of being a thief.

Besides, who in his right mind would want to return to the days of Mr. Sharif or the Bhuttos? When you took over in 1999, the country was $30 billion in debt and its credit rating was among the world’s worst. Since then, the number of cell phone subscribers is up 100%, the number of air conditioners sold is up 200%, the stock market is up 800%, foreign direct investment is up more than tenfold and the economy has averaged 7% annual growth over five years. Did the shambolic democracy of years past ever register these kinds of figures?
That’s one reason why you are confident you can ride out this storm, just as you have so many others. The intellectuals, the leftists, the human-rights activists and the lawyers–lawyers!–may be against you, but the worst they can do is write nasty op-eds in the pages of the Western press. That may be a stain on your vanity, but it is not a threat to your regime.
By contrast, the merchant classes, political allies from the beginning, remain your great beneficiaries and would be the last to cheer your ouster. As for the poor, they will do nothing to risk their livelihoods for the sake of politics. Come to think of it, that’s another excellent reason to enforce the state of emergency well past the next election.
Then there is Ms. Bhutto, whose political smarts don’t quite match her rhetorical gifts. She did you a favor earlier this year when she all but agreed to rule in condominium with you in exchange for having her corruption charges dropped. But she was under the mistaken impression that you needed her “democratic legitimacy” every bit as much as she craved a return to power. You’ve rubbished that assumption. Maybe now she’ll understand the favor you have done her by keeping her under house arrest, thereby preserving the pretense of her political oppositionism.
As for the military, you’ve had eight years to make sure your lieutenants are loyal. Not only do they see you as one of their own, they also see you as the man who will keep the money coming from Washington. And the money will keep coming. The ostensible purpose of President Bush’s phone call last week may have been to insist that you hold elections and relinquish your uniform, and you’re probably prepared to meet him halfway. But the subtext of the call is that the two of you remain on speaking terms. Had it been otherwise, the consequences could have been devastating to you. For now, though, you’re still the one.

What worries you? The business about the uniform, for starters. You are old enough to remember 1958, when a former general turned civilian president named Iskander Mirza dissolved the government, declared martial law and put Ayub Khan, the army chief of staff, in charge. Bad move: Khan exiled Mirza to London in three weeks flat.
You also can’t be sure the street violence won’t spiral out of control. You have gone out of your way to treat the detained lawyers gingerly, by local standards. What if they don’t get the message and return to the streets, unchastened and emboldened? What if there is some kind of “event” that galvanizes the protestors? Most of your army is Punjabi: Could they be counted on to crack the heads of fellow Punjabis in Lahore, if it came to that?
There’s also this pesky matter of increasingly assertive Islamist militants in the North-West Frontier Province, who have repeatedly humiliated the army in recent confrontations. Your motives for declaring an emergency have been so transparently self-serving that it’s easy to forget there really is a terrorist threat to the country. It may soon dawn on you that your assault on civil liberties has only ripened the conditions in which terrorists thrive.
Fortunately for you, the first two scenarios aren’t likely to come to pass, and the third you’ll somehow handle. Your support, both at home and abroad, may never again be what it was, but the absence of support does not necessarily mean active opposition. In your case it will probably mean reluctant acquiescence to the facts you lay on the ground. Were you a democrat, you might feel ashamed to carry on ruling that way. Soldier that you are, it won’t make you lose much sleep.
Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. His column appears in the Journal Tuesdays.

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~ oleh endikaz pada November 20, 2007.

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