Pakistan's unappealing alternatives

Mansoor Ijaz:

Pervez Musharraf finally bowed to international pressure Wednesday and resigned Pakistan's most powerful government position: army chief of staff. On Thursday, he was sworn in as a civilian president, and he promises to lift "emergency rule" in December and hold free and fair parliamentary elections in January. Whether he keeps those promises, and whether Pakistan can be returned to a path of civilian government under the rule of law -- rather than rule by a dictator's decree -- will depend heavily on what its political party leaders and former prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, do in the next weeks.

Bhutto, like Sharif a political exile until recently, returned home to suicide bombers as well as throngs of supporters in Karachi. She has since spent more time writing opinion pieces than restructuring and regrouping her fractured party. Sharif, at first denied entry but allowed back last week, returned aboard a royal Saudi jet, with Saudi-provided bulletproof limousines and a helicopter for campaigning. He immediately started name-calling, attacking Bhutto and Musharraf. Back to the future, with the most corrosive politicians on Earth.

Sharif is the most problematic proposition for Pakistan's future. In the early 1990s, he was the prime minister of choice of Pakistan's Islamist movement as it was first getting a taste of power on a global scale. In April 1991, Sharif announced Sharia law as the law of the land, before being forced into retreat by the judiciary. Before the 1990 elections, Sharif reportedly met with Osama bin Laden in Saudi Arabia to ask for support in stopping Bhutto from winning her first term as prime minister. A woman's ascension to power was anathema to Bin Laden and the Afghan mujahedin as well as Sharif's key Islamist partners inside Pakistan.

After Sharif was elected for a second time, in 1997, he tested Pakistan's nuclear bomb, albeit after being provoked by India's nuclear tests. He also personally approved the army's invasion of Kargil in Kashmir, provoking a near nuclear confrontation with India in early 1999. In the months before the coup that put Musharraf in power in October 1999, Sharif set a path for Pakistan's Islamists to win unprecedented power. They believed then, as they do now, in a "one man [no women need apply], one vote, one time" concept of democracy -- in which there's an election but the winner becomes ruler for life. Sharif, with Islamist support, wanted to be emperor of Pakistan, not its democratically elected leader.

As prime minister, Sharif took control of most of Pakistan's industry and resources, putting his people in managerial positions, rewarding cronies and cementing his power while the broader economy suffered -- a model that Musharraf has followed closely. Sharif also suppressed the media in a manner not very different from what we are seeing today under "emergency rule" (martial law by any other name) in Pakistan.

In short, Sharif was never Pakistan's savior.

Of course, neither Musharraf nor Bhutto is a better choice to fix what ails Pakistan. During two terms in office, Bhutto, the Harvard-educated progressive, looted the treasury, sparked conflict with India in Kashmir to cover her financial misdeeds and ignored the fundamental needs -- jobs, education, basic healthcare -- of her people. As for Musharraf, his imposition of emergency rule on Nov. 3, which allowed him to dissolve the court that preferred the rule of law to his dictates, betrays his true colors.

They are all deeply flawed, but Musharraf has shown himself to be the most benign of the group. I think electing the other two to power again may result in another general stepping in to "save" Pakistan. The sad thing is, that he will probably be better.


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