Musharraf exaggerates Islamist threat
CERI Research Fellow Mariam Abou Zahab explains the facts in today's Le Monde.
Q. Since Pakistan’s Constitution permits declaration of a State of Emergency, is what General Musharraf doing a coup d’état?
It is not a state of emergency. It’s a hybrid of a state of emergency and martial law. Legally, General Musharraf is not empowered to order a state of emergency as the Supreme Court has not ruled on his eligibility.
Q. What is the content of the ruling that Pakistan’s Supreme Court is about to issue? Why is General Musharraf refusing to wait for the verdict?
We have no idea but rumor suggests that the Supreme Court was going to declare General Musharraf ineligible, so he took the initiative.
Q. Is the state of emergency really going to help to combat the Islamists?
No and there is cause to be skeptical. Because here again, there are ambiguities. The state of emergency is going to strengthen the militants. Yesterday there was a failed bombing targeting army officers. Paradoxically, yesterday Islamist militants freed more than 200 soldiers that they had been holding hostage since August 30th. There was a prisoner exchange for combatants held in custody by the Army which shows that the government continues to make deals with the militants. And we’ve seen since 2005 that this has done nothing but strengthen the militants.
Q. Did General Musharraf act to consolidate his own position or was he seeking to defend the economic and political interests of certain groups within the country?
I’m afraid to say that he had acted to keep himself in power and that has played his last trump.
Q. But isn’t General Musharraf the best defense against Taliban extremism and the breakup of Pakistan?
No. This is what General Musharraf has been successfully telling the Americans since September 11th but it is not so. He exaggerates the Islamic menace in Pakistan to maintain the support of the United States. By dividing the opposition and discrediting it, he has created a political void that has allowed the religious parties to step in. But these religious parties are legal and perfectly democratic. They sit in Parliament, they represent the concerns of a part of the population. One has to distinguish them from the extremist groups.
Q. Why are the lawyers the vanguard of the anti-Musharraf movement?
For at least two reasons. First, lawyers have always spearheaded protest movements in Southeast Asia since colonial times. Second, because the lawyers have been mobilizing since March, when General Musharraf fired the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In proclaiming the state of emergency, General Musharraf attacked the judicial branch and journalists, holding them responsible for the failure of the fight against extremism.
Q. Western media present the bar associations as the sole veritable expression of civil society. To what extent do they represent public opinion?
The question is whether a movement led by lawyers can lead to a mass movement. We’ve seen that between March and November, the lawyers’ movement has been confined to the urbanized and educated middle class. Indeed, the lawyers are not representative of the population at large, especially the rural population, which has other priorities right now: rising prices, inflation, unemployment and the growing gap between rich and poor. There is disenchantment among the population in the face of these political maneuvers and they have seen enough.
Q. Are the lawyers and the Islamists going to join ranks?
No, absolutely not! They have goals and concerns that are totally divergent. The principal divisions in Pakistan are economic and social cleavages. That is something that the United States has never understood.
Q. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and therefore isn't a military dictatorship preferable to an Islamist theocracy?
There is no risk in the medium term of an Islamist theocracy in Pakistan. That’s a fantasy of the Western media. A military dictatorship is not the answer to Pakistan’s problems. There has been one military regime after the other which has left Pakistan in a catastrophic situation. But on the other hand, the army cannot be excluded from politics. A compromise must be found.
Q. To what extent is regionalism a factor of instability and it is greater than Islamism?
Two provinces west of the Indus (the Northwest frontier province and Balochistan) are in a state of insurrection and most of the territory there is not under central authority. This is a factor of destabilization far greater than that of any hypothetical Islamist threat. Islamist militantism in the Pashtun area is also a manifestation of a social movement which has taken on a religious cast but which remains above all a social movement.
Q. Why is former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto silent?
Benazir Bhutto is the wild card in General Musharraf’s proclamation of a state of emergency. She continues to negotiate with him and it is unknown what she will do if these negotiations fail. What she wants most of all is to become Prime Minister for a third time. There is the fear that if the elections go ahead that she will accept the state of emergency as a necessary evil. If she is unable to reach an agreement with General Musharraf, would she be successful in mobilizing her party to enter the streets against the state of emergency? This remains an unknown. Moreover, it is obvious that she will do nothing without the green light of the United States.
Q. What can the international community do to confront this new political crisis? Should it support the return of Benazir Bhutto?
Benazir Bhutto is not the answer to Pakistan’s problems. The international community should insist on a civilian government with elections in which all opposition parties are allowed to participate, something sought by Nawaz Sharif, who should be allowed back into the country so that the elections have a modicum of credibility.
Q. Is there a genuine democratic current in Pakistan.
Yes. Pakistani society wants democracy but it had a disappointing experience with it in the 1990’s. They are expecting a savior who can solve all the country’s social problems, bring stability, provide security and supply jobs and social justice. That would be an ideal democracy in the eyes of the Pakistanis.