Musharraf’s second coup

Dateline: 07 November 2007

When Pervez Musharraf came to power in a military coup in 1999 it was warily welcomed in the west. Military coups are not, in general (no pun intended) a good thing. But Pakistan under Nawaz Sharif was corrupt and chaotic. Also Musharraf did not seem likely to bring back the Islamic fundamentalism of General Zia ul Haq, the previous military dictator from the 1980s.

So it proved. Musharraf struggled to lead Pakistan in an increasingly secular and pro-western direction. His government has been more secular than Sharif’s, himself only a moderate Islamist.

It is one of the ironies of the Indian sub-continent that Pakistan – founded as an expressly Muslim country – is in many ways more secular than India, which was founded as a secular democracy with a large number of different religious groups. Islamic fundamentalists have never come to power democratically in Pakistan – only in Zia’s coup. India has elected Hindu fundamentalists on more than one occasion.

The problem for Musharraf – the problem for all Pakistan’s post-Zia rulers – is that Zia infected the army with fundamentalism. In particular the intelligence service – the feared ISI – is rife with fundamentalists.

It was reasonable to hope that Musharraf, being a general, might be better placed to root out this infection than the two democratic leaders – Sharif and Benazir Bhutto – had been. Of the two democrats Bhutto is the more secular, leading a party modeled on the British Labour Party. She also has more reason to distrust both the Islamists and the military, since the Zia regime murdered her father, the Prime Minister Zia deposed, while she was a student at Oxford.

Just a few weeks ago it seemed likely that Bhutto was about to return to power, which she may yet. Musharraf allowed her to return to Pakistan while her old rival, Sharif, remained in exile. There were strong rumors of a deal between the general and Ms Bhutto. She never denied them. When challenged on the morality of doing a deal with the general she reminded people that there are two rifts in Pakistan. While she and Musharraf are on opposite sides of the civilian-military chasm, they remain on the same side in the division between secular and Islamist forces.

The possibility of an alliance between Pakistan’s two leading secularists was tempting for the west. With Bhutto’s popular support, Musharraf could move still more decisively against Islamists in the army and ISI. One of the secret and undeclared fronts in the War on Terror is Musharraf’s campaign to secularize his army. No doubt the CIA, MI6, and Special Forces from America and Britain have been very supportive in quietly removing Islamists from key military offices.

But Musharraf’s declaration of martial law seems to have destroyed the nascent alliance with Bhutto. Her supporters, like those of the exiled Sharif, are demanding that the general step down. Probably he will. His support in the military is not so great that he can resist the opposition of both secular and religious civilian leaders. His attempt further to postpone elections is unlikely to be successful.

An alliance between the secular forces of Musharraf and Bhutto would probably have been victorious at the polls. But if they split the secular vote, Sharif’s Islamists could return to power. By remaining in exile he has stayed untouched by the latest chaos.

Worse, radical Islamists could come to power in the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons. Or a country with six times the population of Iraq could descend into civil war.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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