A dictator’s second act

Three years ago, Gen. Pervez Musharraf was president of Pakistan, charged with the world’s sixth-largest population and fourth-largest nuclear arsenal. Now he’s settled into unglamorous self-exile in London’s Hyde Park — he golfs and plays bridge, and runs around without a big security detail. Sitting on his couch one evening in September, on the eve of a U.S. visit to boost his international profile, Musharraf says he doesn’t intend to live this way much longer. He’s been planning an unlikely comeback: After taking power in a military coup more than a decade ago, he wants to win it back through the ballot box. “I call it the call of destiny,” he says.

Musharraf’s intent — as he reiterated in October during a stop in Washington — is to return to Pakistan in the spring and contest the country’s 2013 elections. He’s launched his own party, the All Pakistan Muslim League. He’s drumming up a political operation headquartered in Islamabad. He’s also speaking out against Pakistan’s current government, pushing the idea that things were much better with him in charge.

Musharraf resigned his office under threat of impeachment, with angry mobs massed below his office window. But he feels vindicated by the problems that have gripped Pakistan since: rising poverty, a sinking economy, growing extremism, a disintegrating relationship with the U.S. “As they say, the taste of the pudding is in its eating. And now the people realize that their condition was so good,” he says.

Some analysts think Washington may be forgetting its old qualms about Musharraf, who was also accused of playing a double game between America and extremists. “I think there is a bit of longing for him in Washington. I hear people talk about that period as a better period,” says Moeed Yusuf, an adviser at the United States Institute of Peace. Karl Inderfurth, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia under President Bill Clinton, says the U.S. would do well to keep an open mind about Musharraf. “There is a recycling of Pakistani civilian leaders who you think are out and gone and they come back,” he says.

But status in the West doesn’t translate to support at home. When it comes to politicking, Musharraf had to start from scratch. “The day he ceased to be army chief, he ceased to be politically relevant,” says Human Rights Watch’s Ali Hasan. “It’s one thing to be army chief and derive your power from that. It’s quite another to start this political party.”

Musharraf knows that nothing serious can happen until he goes to Pakistan. “The real gains cannot be made by remote control,” he says. But a return would be perilous. Musharraf survived two assassination attempts as president, and now he could be in grave danger from extremist elements. “His own personal security would be in question from the moment he stepped off the plane. It would be a serious question whether or not the sitting government would protect him,” says Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who notes Musharraf would face “a series of bruising legal battles that would be very unpleasant,” as multiple arrest warrants — including one issued in October — await him.

Musharraf says popular support would be his best defense. “The mandate of the people, the big support of the people — that will be my greatest safeguard,” he says. He’s also certain that the army would shield him. “Obviously, the whole army is mine,” Musharraf says. “Everyone knows me … I expect — and I think I will get — support from them on my security.” He says he is not close to Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, his handpicked successor to lead the army. But when asked if he expects Kayani to look out for him: “Without asking,” he says. “I don’t ask. I expect that, yes.”

The army would be forced into a difficult position, wary of seeing the precedent of a former military leader held to account in court or killed by extremists. Musharraf’s political rivals, meanwhile, have already taken note. When supporters recently hung Musharraf banners in the province of Punjab, they were promptly arrested. “He’s a lone ranger at this point,” Yusuf says. “But I think he’s raising the stakes.”

Musharraf bristles as he recounts how his legacy has been erased back home. “They don’t want people to remember me,” he says. “But I’ll make sure that they remember me.”

By Mike Giglio, a reporter at Newsweek. Fasih Ahmed, Eli Lake and R.M. Schneiderman contribute.

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