May 22, 2007

Musharraf: Crisis gone too far

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf has run out of damage control tactics and appears to be losing support even among his trusted generals as political crisis turns to violence.

UNCommentary by Naveed Ahmad in Islamabad for ISN Security Watch (21/05/07)

While Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf publicizes his dreams for world peace – which most recently include a proposal for a Muslim-nation peacekeeping force in Iraq – at home the crises are mounting.

More than 45 people were killed and 159 wounded during two days of violence on 13 and 14 May when opposition supporters and pro-government activists clashed in Karachi following Musharraf's suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Chaudhry was given an ultimatum: either follow government dictate or quit the office – the independent-minded judge chose the latter and Musharraf produced a list of what Chaudhry's supporters say are bogus charges.

On 15 May, a suicide bomber killed 25 people and wounded more than 30 others in an attack in a crowded hotel in Peshawar. The attacker reportedly had a warning note taped to his leg saying: "Those who spy for Americans will meet the same fate."

In the meantime, security on the Afghan-Pakistani border is rapidly deteriorating, with troops from both countries exchanging fire in a series of incidents last week, including clashes overnight on 16 May in which mortars and small arms were used, according to the BBC. On 13 May, at least three people were killed in clashes. A US soldier and a Pakistani soldier at a meeting to discuss the 13 May clashes were killed in unclear circumstances.

And finally, on 20 May, Pakistani security forces detained some 40 religious extremists in Islamabad after two policemen were taken hostage. The policemen were held inside the Red Mosque (Laal Masjid) compound by hard-line clerics and students. Students abducted the policemen on Friday, demanding the release of 11 other students. The officers were released shortly afterwards.

For the first time since the 11 October 1999 bloodless military coup in which Musharraf rose to power, the Pakistani general is in serious trouble. Chaudhry's suspension has so far been one of his worst blunders, with the move sparking nationwide outrage. Lawyers, opposition politicians and their citizen supporters continue to gather outside the Supreme Court building to burn effigies of Musharraf. Pakistan has not seen such vocal protests in six decades.

Musharraf, for his part, accuses the opposition of politicizing what should be a legal issue, but the general does not seem to be receiving much vocal support for Chaudhry's suspension even from his own ministers.

And Chaudhry, in the meantime, is becoming a national hero. This year is the golden jubilee anniversary of the Supreme Court, and Chaudhry has been addressing the respective bar associations concerning invitations to the celebration. Leaders of the opposition political parties drive alongside him while their workers cheer every time he heads to address a lawyers’ gathering.

To avoid a similar show in Karachi, the pro-Musharraf government in Sindh announced it would hold a parallel rally when the chief justice was to address the legal fraternity there. That action sparked riots. So far, all the serving judges have attended the bar functions in absolute rejection of Musharraf’s accusations against the chief justice.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), an ethno-political party said to have a militant wing, sprang into action on behalf of Musharraf, keeping Chaudhry stranded at the airport for eight hours as the government blocked all the key routes leading to the Sindh High Court on 12 May. Some 38 people were killed in clashes between opposition supporters and MQM forces following the blockade.

The government also moved to lay siege for eight hours to independent Aij TV, which was broadcasting the violence in Karachi live.

A trusted Supreme Court official and prime defense witness for the chief justice was murdered early on 15 May at his residence. The government terms his killing as an armed robbery gone-wrong.

Musharraf has not only lost valuable time ahead of general elections due in November, but he has also run out of damage control tactics. After this bitter row with the judiciary, Musharraf is unlikely to see the Supreme Court accept his dictates or interpret certain constitutional clauses to serve his political interests in 2007 elections – let alone win another four-year presidential term.

The Pakistani leader's rampage against the judiciary may have also cost him support among his core cabinet of generals. Once again, another Pakistani dictator seems to have reached a dead end, and although Musharraf has a reputation for being a fierce fighter, time is no longer on his side.

With that in mind, over the weekend, two former Pakistani prime ministers living in exile – Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – have vowed to return to Pakistan to challenge Musharraf for president later this year, despite the general's warning that they would not be allowed to enter the country.

Naveed Ahmad is ISN Security Watch’s senior correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is an academic and an investigative journalist based in Islamabad.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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