President Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto appear to be locked in a test of wills. On Friday, Bhutto was temporarily placed under house arrest (Reuters) to prevent her from leading a mass rally against Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule. Bhutto had earlier served an ultimatum to Musharraf to restore the constitution, take off his uniform and announce the date for elections scheduled for mid-January, or else she would defy emergency and lead mass protest rallies. The rally came on the heels of Musharraf’s announcement that he would hold elections by February 15 (Dawn), a step lauded by U.S. officials.
The rising tensions threaten to push Pakistan’s political crisis to a new level of violence. But observers wonder if Musharraf-Bhutto faceoff is quite what it seems. Bhutto and Musharraf, pushed by United States and the West, have been discussing a power-sharing deal for months, one that Washington hopes will restore democracy in Pakistan. According to the BBC, cynical observers think “Friday's dramas in Islamabad and elsewhere are an exercise in mutual face-saving, a clandestine understanding that is meant to benefit both.” Meanwhile, a deal may still occur, experts say.
Musharraf’s state of emergency and suspension of the constitution was largely prompted by fears of an unfavorable ruling from the Supreme Court on his reelection as president. He went on to dismiss Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and several other judges who refused to give legal sanction to the emergency. Musharraf then arrested hundreds of protesters, shut down independent television news outlets, and placed political opponents and social and human rights activists under house arrest (CSMonitor). Protests have continued, with Chaudhry leading calls for a popular uprising (AsiaNews). As this Backgrounder points out, such dissent from members of the country’s judiciary is unprecedented and lawyers are emerging as a powerful pro-democracy group in the country.
Musharraf said emergency rule was required to stabilize the country against the threat of religious extremism and blamed some members of the judiciary for “working at cross purposes with the executive and legislature in the fight against terrorism.” But Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid writes in the Wall Street Journal emergency rule “will only encourage further civil strife, nationwide protests and greater territorial gains by the extremist Pakistani Taliban.”
Violence has been on the rise in Pakistan and is no longer limited to the conflict-ridden tribal areas, but has reached main cities such as Karachi and Rawalpindi. Some experts say Musharraf, instead of targeting militants and religious extremists, is going after pro-democracy activists because he fears them more. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali Nasr writes in the Christian Science Monitor, “In Pakistan, there is now more violence, extremism, and instability than when Musharraf took over in 1999.” The BBC’s Urdu Service head Mohammed Hanif, writing in the New York Times, asks why Musharraf and his army are “scared of liberal lawyers and teachers but happy to deal with Islamist Pashtuns in the tribal areas?” Adding to scepticism about the general’s motivies was Musharraf decision to exchange twenty-eight Taliban prisoners for Pakistani soldiers, the same day he declared the emergency and arrested (AP) lawyers, peace activists, teachers, artists.
So far, the United States has responded cautiously. While President Bush called on Musharraf to hold elections and remove his military uniform as soon as possible, comments by officials in the Bush administration signalled that tough action—such as substantial reductions of U.S. aid to Pakistan—are not in the cards ( NYT). Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said President Bush's first concern was “to protect America” and added: “We have to be very cognizant of the fact that some of the assistance that has been going to Pakistan is directly related to the counterterrorism mission.”