Musharraf’s Coup – Seven Years Later

The requirements for survival of the present regime are clear: on the one hand the Army leadership knows that its critical dependence upon the West requires that it be perceived abroad as a liberal regime pitted against radical Islamists. But, on the other hand, in actual fact, to preserve and extend its grip on power, it must preserve the status quo.

Examples abound. On 21st April 2000, General Musharraf announced a new administrative procedure for registration of cases under the Blasphemy Law. This law, under which the minimum penalty is death, has frequently been used to harass personal and political opponents. To reduce such occurrences, Musharraf’s modified procedure would have required the local district magistrate’s approval for registration of a blasphemy case. It would have been an improvement, albeit a modest one. But 25 days later – on the 16th of May 2000 – under the watchful glare of the mullahs, Musharraf hastily climbed down: “As it was the unanimous demand of the ulema, mashaikh and the people, therefore, I have decided to do away with the procedural change in the registration of FIR under the Blasphemy Law”.

But even these climb downs – significant as they are – are less dramatic than the astonishing recent retreat over reforming the Hudood Ordinance, a grotesque imposition of General Zia-ul-Haq’s government unparalleled both for its cruelty and irrationality. Enacted into the law in 1979, it was conceived as part of a more comprehensive process for converting Pakistan into a theocracy governed by Sharia laws. These laws prescribe death by stoning for married Muslims who are found guilty of extra-marital sex (for unmarried couples or non-Muslims, the penalty is 100 lashes). The law is exact in stating how the death penalty is to be administered: “Such of the witnesses who deposed against the convict as may be available shall start stoning him and, while stoning is being carried on, he may be shot dead, whereupon stoning and shooting shall be stopped”.

President and Chief of Army Staff General Musharraf, and his Citibank Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz, proposed amending the Hudood Ordinance. They sent a draft for parliamentary discussion in early September, 2006. As expected, it outraged the fundamentalists of the MMA, the main Islamic parliamentary opposition. MMA members tore up copies of the proposed amendments on the floor of the National Assembly and threatened to resign en masse. The government cowered abjectly and withdrew.

But the pattern is broader then deference to the mullahs. General Musharraf has been willing to use the iron fist in other circumstances. Two examples stand out: Waziristan and Balochistan. Each offers instruction.

The generals, safely removed from combat areas, and busy in building their personal financial empires, ascribed the resistance to “a few hundred foreign militants and terrorists”. But the Army was taking losses (how serious is suggested by the fact that casualty figures were not revealed), soldiers rarely ventured out from their forts, morale collapsed as junior officers wondered why they were being asked to attack their ideological comrades – the Taliban – at American instructions. Reportedly, local clerics refused to conduct funeral prayers for soldiers killed in action.

The Miramshah treaty met all demands made by the militants: the release of all jailed militants; dismantling of army checkpoints; return of seized weapons and vehicles; the right of the Taliban to display weapons (except heavy weapons); and residence rights for fellow fighters from other Islamic countries. As for “foreign militants” who Musharraf had blamed exclusively for the resistance, the militants were nonchalant: we will let you know if we find any! The financial compensation demanded by the Taliban for loss of property and life has not been revealed, but some officials have remarked that it is “astronomical”. In turn they promised to cease their attacks on civil and military installations, and give the army a safe passage out.

And then there is Balochistan. Eight years ago when the army seized power, there was no visible separatist movement in Balochistan, which makes nearly 44% of Pakistan’s land mass and is the repository of its gas and oil. Now there is a full blown insurgency built upon Baloch grievances, most of which arise from a perception of being ruled from Islamabad and of being denied a fair share of the benefits of the natural resources extracted from their land.

Musharraf and his generals are determined to stay in power. They will protect the source of their power – the army. They will accommodate those they must – the Americans. They will pander to the mullahs. They will crush those who threaten their power and privilege, and ignore the rest. No price is too high for them. They are the reason Pakistan fails.

The author teaches at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. This article was published on the anniversary of the coup. (published in Dawn, 12-10-2006)

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