Musharraf's Party is Over

Musharraf's Party is Over

Press restrictions, corruption and government inefficiency have inspired hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis to take to the streets recently. Musharraf’s reign may be ending, and Washington should take notice.


The hundreds of thousands of ordinary Pakistanis euphorically chanting in the streets in support of Iftikhar Chaudhry, the suspended chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, demonstrate that Pakistan has outgrown Pervez Musharraf's transitional leadership. These protests have emerged as a people's movement demanding rule of law and restoration of the chief justice; the public mood is simply electric. In response, the Musharraf government has tried every trick in its book to discredit Chaudhry and repress his supporters, but to little avail. The only word that explains the chief justice's rise in public esteem is "defiance." It also explains why Musharraf's stars are fading: As he loses credibility, challenging him earns respect.

What all this means for the United States is an important question, so a credible analysis must look closely at the roots of the current crisis and the characteristics of the movement's mobilizing forces. Any interpretation that pays little heed to these elements will inevitably be skewed.


Washington is understandably worried about the potential impact of these developments on Pakistan's cooperation in the U.S.-led War on Terror. The prospect of an unstable nuclear Pakistan with religious political parties in power haunts not only the United States, but also Pakistan's neighbors. Yet, Chief Justice Chaudhry's character and the nature of his public support should allay these fears. He is not a religious extremist by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, he boldly used his chief-justice position to check the autocratic and authoritarian tendencies of Pakistan's law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. He took many a suo moto action in support of poor and disenfranchised people who had no access to justice. He ruled against the vested interests in various high-profile cases. In an unprecedented move, he challenged the country's powerful intelligence organizations to produce citizens-most of whom were political activists from opposition parties-who were "missing." Chaudhry's actions exposed the incompetence of the state machinery and provided relief to ordinary people. Unfortunately, such defenders of the public interest are rare in Pakistan.

This all transpired at a time when Musharraf was readying himself for reelection by a parliament whose term expires this November. He also indicated his plans to remain chief of the army, a job he promised to relinquish in December 2004 after taking advantage of a three-year extension. Both of these plans are constitutionally questionable, and it was obvious to Musharraf that Chaudhry would act independently and according to law. Musharraf recognized that if his prospective actions were to be challenged in the Supreme Court, he would not get a pass. So, as the story goes, the chief justice was suspended when he refused to resign upon Musharraf's request. This version of events may or may not be completely true, but for the public it is fact.

Chaudhry's addresses at various bar associations across the country prompted huge shows of public support-and provoked the Pakistan president's ire. Committing blunders became routine for Musharraf, and in the process he lost touch with reality. The state-sponsored killings in Karachi on May 12, meant to undermine pro-Chaudhry demonstrations, were the most devastating blow to Musharraf's trustworthiness. Instead of reacting to the public mood, Musharraf has refused to back down from his mistaken position and has, in turn, lost all sense of direction.

Meanwhile, various progressive and liberal elements of Pakistani society-lawyers, human-rights activists, intellectuals and the media-galvanized public opinion on the matter; political parties therefore had no choice but to join hands with the chief justice's supporters. This is a major setback to religious parties and conservative groups because Chaudhry's movement stands for establishing the rule of law in Pakistan. There is a cry for free, fair and transparent elections. Now, religious political parties are merely following the course set by the liberals and are unlikely to benefit from these recent turns in events. The hitherto silent majority of Pakistan has spoken.

It is difficult to comprehend why this scenario perplexes Washington. Musharraf's heart was certainly in the right place, and some of his contributions to the War on Terror deserve credit, but at best he was part of a transition phase. His policies in the tribal belt between Pakistan and Afghanistan have failed to deliver, and the Taliban is becoming entrenched in parts of the country's North West Frontier Province. Even Musharraf's supporters cannot explain why the Pakistani president took a very benign attitude towards a group of hard-line mullahs who have taken charge of Islamabad's Red Mosque and have even established religious courts (as per their distorted version of Islam). These religious extremists are openly challenging the writ of the state, yet Musharraf is keeping criminally silent. Arguably, he wants to use these images to scare the West and prove his invincibility.

The crux of the matter is that Musharraf has become a liability for Pakistan, and consequently for the United States. There are clear indications that he may well dismantle what little he built. Of late, a few compromised media channels in the country (after recuperating from the ill-advised clampdown) have started giving undue airtime to some of the strong critics of U.S. policies towards Pakistan. One wonders if this is in response to government instructions. After all, it is in Musharraf's interest to prove that the ongoing public fury and his possible ouster will strengthen religious and anti-American forces. One hopes that the Bush Administration will not take the bait. If nothing else, Musharraf's stay in power will open up doors for religious extremists to stage a comeback and even attempt to hijack the public fervor.

Fighting religious extremism and halting Talibanization is in the larger interest of Pakistan, and the progressive forces in Pakistan are the entities most well-equipped to fight this war of ideas. Pakistan's army, which is responsible for fighting the physical battle, will continue to be an organized and professional force and a beneficiary of the U.S. military aid-with or without Musharraf.

Hassan Abbas is a research Fellow at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and is the author of Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror (M.E. Sharpe, 2004).