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Musharraf’s unclear endgame

General Pervez Musharraf’s team has been rushing from one bungle to another these past few weeks, pushing his stock lower and lower, writes IA Rehman.

india Updated: Jul 07, 2007 23:39 IST
IA Rehman

General Pervez Musharraf’s team has been rushing from one bungle to another these past few weeks, pushing his stock lower and lower. As a result, uncertainty surrounding key issues in national politics — a new presidential term, general election, the establishment’s search for political allies, and transition to a democratic dispensation — has deepened.

While the lawyers’ agitation against removal of the Chief Justice gathered strength, the government courted serious embarrassment in the Supreme Court. Apparently mortified at the poor effect of the official affidavits, filed to counter Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s account of the encounter with Musharraf, the state counsel filed additional documents.

These were described in court, by judges as well as the Chief Justice’s counsel, as scandalous attacks on judges. Some of the stories and photographs on the file proved the intelligence agencies’ intrusion into the private lives of judges. The notorious agencies were caught, so to say, red-handed. No wonder the full court hearing Justice Chaudhry’s challenge to the reference against him came down heavily on the battery of official lawyers, sternly rebuked the intelligence agencies and sought to bar them from operating inside the courtroom and violating the honourable judges’ right to privacy.

The state lawyers were too shocked to own responsibility for filing the libelous application. They surrendered the advocate-on-record to suffer the consequences of their folly. The most quaint observation was made by Pirzada, the ‘guru’ of coup-makers and autocratic destroyers of constitutional norms, who said the federal government might have filed the objectionable material without informing the Chief (Musharraf).

The impact on the public mind was exceptionally adverse to the regime. Most people took the view that the regime’s realisation of the weakness of its case against the Chief Justice was driving it to extra-legal means to condemn him. As the case drags on, public opinion receives daily confirmation of the view that whatever the outcome of the legal battle, the regime will be the loser.

As if this was not enough, the long-simmering Lal Masjid affair blew up in the regime’s face. Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), one of the oldest mosques in the Ayub-built Capital of the 1960s, gets its name from the paint on its exterior walls. One of the first acts of General Zia after seizing power in July 1977 was to demonstrate his antipathy to anything red by getting the mosque pained green (and ordering the colour of buses and letter boxes changed). But the mosque continued to be called Lal Masjid and eventually, its original paint was restored.

In post-9/11 Pakistan, the mosque became a castle for firebrand clerics and their pupils, the burqa-clad young women among them being more prominent than young men, not only because of their robes and long sticks in their hands but also because of their training for combat and their propensity for violence. Within a short period the mosque occupants, invariably described as the mosque authority, became a law unto themselves, justified their illegal occupation of a children’s library and its use as a seminary for women, and started issuing the state orders in matters of no direct concern to them — demolition of mosques in some parts of Islamabad, stopping of what were branded as obscene activities in the town, and enforcement of Islamic order.

For six months the regime passively swallowed every indignity heaped upon it by the Lal Masjid command, that took into custody several women, including a few Chinese, on the charge of running brothels, and abducted security officials with impunity. The law and order people protested and Beijing was visibly offended. The regime’s credit declined across the land. General Musharraf defended regime’s capitulation to the mosque militants by saying he did not want to see people getting killed.

True, storming militants inside a mosque is a highly inflammable hazard in Pakistan but a more significant determinant of the General’s policy perhaps was the existence of the mosque brigade’s sympathizers within his government and his core-constituency. Not only were religious affairs minister Ejazul Haq, General Zia’s son, and the official party head and kingmaker Chaudhry Shujaat Husain had been openly paying homage to the mosque command, the invisible legion behind it could not be ignored. Eventually the regime was made to rue its appeasement policy.

The showdown began early last week and three days and over a score of fatal causalities later the standoff continues. How the matter ends is now less important than its political fallout. By failing to do the right thing at the right time, the regime has alienated a large number of people who support anyone calling for, in an idiom popularised by the state itself, enforcement of the Islamic system, although many of them do not absolve the mosque command of its many sins. Religious militancy has received a shot in the arm and considerable benefit may accrue to its godfathers, who already control two troubled provinces — Frontier and Balochsitan. The government writ does not run even in the Capital, says the common man. The regime is having the worst of both sides: the religious-minded are angry for attacking their belief while the others are criticising the regime for making a hash of its belated action.

All the three major events — confrontation with the Chief Justice, the May 12 mayhem in Karachi, and now the battle of the Lal Masjid — occurring within a few weeks have gravely undermined the General’s political plans. His efforts to make up with Benazir Bhutto and form a national political alliance have run into increasing difficulties. In the circumstances, the all-party conference called by Nawaz Sharif to draw up the only London Plan so far that is unlikely to be denied by its authors, appears set to become more successful than earlier expected. On top of everything, the Election Commission has compounded the regime’s woes by slashing the 2002 voters’ list by 20 million or more.

How the endgame will proceed is quite unclear because all the cards are not yet on the table, especially General Musharraf’s. But nobody is taking bets on turbulence-free months ahead or on the General’s ability to ride the storm.

(The writer is a leading Pakistani commentator and a human rights activist)