May 10, 2008

America and an unpopular president

Filed under: NEW GOVERNMENT AFTER MARCH 24-2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 4:10 am
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MAY 10, 2008

Saturday, May 10, 2008
Rahimullah Yusufzai

One doesn’t know how the question was structured at the Karachi event organized by the Management Association of Pakistan but US ambassador Anne W Patterson’s reply left nobody in doubt. The answer, which wasn’t difficult to predict in view of Washington’s track record, was that General (r) Pervez Musharraf was president of Pakistan and it was time to move on instead of getting stuck with this one issue.

There never was any doubt that the US was behind President Musharraf and wanted him to continue in that position with or without his military uniform. Despite its rhetorical support for democracy and human rights, the US had concluded that it was easier and beneficial for its interests to deal with a headstrong military dictator such as General Musharraf than popular politicians who are answerable to parliament and the nation. President George W Bush and his government stood by the embattled Pakistani President even after it became clear in the February 18 elections that an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis opposed the retired general and political parties allied to him.

Apparently, it doesn’t bother the US that its support for an unpopular leader has upset the people of Pakistan. Otherwise, it would have corrected its flawed stance and backed those parties and politicians who were mandated by Pakistani voters just two and a half months ago to run the government. It was, therefore, naïve of Ambassador Patterson to remark at the same Karachi function that she was surprised by the depth of the anti-Americanism in Pakistan, especially among the middle class.

She also failed to read the reason for the anti-US sentiment in the country of her posting by arguing that those who opposed American engagement in Pakistan have a limited understanding of how this partnership based on economic assistance and financial interaction changed the lives of everyday Pakistanis in real and positive ways. It is true that US assistance has been at times crucial for Pakistan’s economic well-being and many Pakistanis value this help. But the goodwill generated in this way is blown away when the US assists military dictators to rule Pakistan against the will of its citizens and put pressure on Islamabad to formulate policies such as those linked to the inappropriately named ‘war on terror’ that serve American rather than Pakistani interests. At a wider level, the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, its continued backing for Israeli policies centred on occupation of Palestinian territories, and its blatant interference in the affairs of Islamic countries also fuel anti-US feelings in Pakistan.

The US ambassador and her superiors in Washington must realize that Pakistan simply cannot move on unless this one issue concerning President Musharraf’s fate is decided one way or the other. The issue would haunt the nation and its institutions ranging from parliament to the judiciary and the media as long as Musharraf’s election as president for five more years is set aside or validated by independent judges and not by those who have come to be derisively known as ‘PCO judges.’

His November 3 declaration of emergency, or martial law in disguise as it is commonly perceived, was aimed at stopping the legal challenge to his unconstitutional election as president and saving his ill-gotten job. Everyone knows that his earlier move to remove Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry from his job was a step in the same direction because he had come to realize that the Supreme Court under him would not endorse his election as president while still wearing the general’s uniform. The judicial crisis triggered by this arbitrary decision reached its peak when more than 60 independent judges of the superior courts were removed from service after the imposition of emergency rule and those willing to accept General Musharraf’s dictates were administered oath under the infamous Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) and duly rewarded with unmerited promotions and jobs in the Supreme Court of Pakistan and provincial high courts.

The rest as they say is history with lawyers spearheading an unprecedented movement for the restoration of judiciary and rule of law, conscientious judges sacrificing their prized jobs, civil society mobilizing like never before, political workers willingly suffering state-sponsored repression and the media fighting back despite physical threats and financial losses. The results of the February 18 elections were a natural outcome of the anti-Musharraf agitation on the streets of Pakistan and in the country’s courtrooms and on the screens of the independent television channels. The masses wanted a change and they voted for it in droves by rejecting the pro-Musharraf parties. Musharraf is not heeding the message because he has been an army general, that too a commando, not used to hearing no for an answer. But two other factors that are prompting him to try and stay on in power are the continued backing by the US and the ambivalent attitude of the new command of the Pakistan army.

The US is paying the price for its pro-Musharraf stance by alienating more and more Pakistanis while the Pakistan army risks doing so by being seen as quiet collaborator of President Musharraf in his efforts to cling on to power. As reflected in the February 18 polls, the Pakistani nation would like to make a fresh start by breaking with the recent past during which the US-backed General Musharraf destroyed the country’s institutions, created a political party by the name of PML-Q to give a civilian façade to his military rule, caused splits in rival parties, ran a foreign policy based on his whims and dangerously aligned Pakistan to America’s ‘war on terror’ without caring about its consequences. His presence would remain a factor of instability as he represents the status quo and a hurdle to change.

A new beginning cannot be envisioned as long as President Musharraf is around. Still armed with powers to dismiss the assemblies and the elected democratic government and backed by the US, his whimsical decisions in the past are enough of a guide to fear him in the future. The democratically elected ruling coalition led by the PPP and the PML-N and backed by the ANP and the JUI-F has to decide whether it wants to live in fear or take decisive steps to rid the country of vestiges of dictatorship to be able to rule in peace. The second option requires the PPP-headed coalition to first reinstate all the judges and restore the judiciary to its position prior to the November 3 imposition of emergency and then empower parliament to elect the president of Pakistan in line with the constitutional provisions. That can happen if the ‘PCO judges’ are made accountable instead of being rewarded for validating the uniformed President Musharraf’s unconstitutional act on November 3 despite the fact that he publicly conceded that this was against the Constitution.

It is unacceptable that conscientious and independent judges who sacrificed everything are equated with those who acted against the Constitution of Pakistan and hurt the sentiments of the nation. Making compromises on matters of principles would prolong the rule of some politicians for a while but it would lower their esteem in the eyes of Pakistani people. Even if some US-brokered deals were made with President Musharraf for strategic reasons or short-term gains, politicians and parties empowered by the people in the February 18 elections should have the courage to walk out of that after having realized that most Pakistanis want them to make a break with the past.

The writer is executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Email:


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