By Kamila Shamise, the author of Broken Verses (THE GUARDIAN, 19/08/08):
Over half an hour into President Musharraf’s address to the nation I texted a friend to say: “This is a resignation speech, right?” She wrote back: “I don’t see what else it could be.” Neither could I, but to the last Musharraf had the air of a man so strongly convinced that he was indispensable to Pakistan that it was hard to believe the former commando would resist one final assault on his political rivals. When it came to it, though, the assault was merely rhetorical – the man of action with nothing left but words to fall back on.
His exit seemed inevitable from the moment his king’s party – the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) – was routed in the February elections; but Pakistan’s leaders have a way of turning the inevitable into the suspenseful. Over the weekend Islamabad was rife with rumours – including the one that said he was still waiting for Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, the leaders of the two largest democratic parties and the country’s most uneasy bedfellows, to tear each other to pieces and allow him to step in and clean up the mess. Other pundits weighed in to say the army wouldn’t allow its former head to be humiliated, and Sharif – who was deposed in 1999 by Musharraf – would settle for nothing less.
But in the end it was in no one’s interests to stand up for a man who wreaked incalculable damage on the nation in his refusal to accept challenges to his authority – challenges that arose last year from the judiciary, and were taken up by the press. In his nine years as president, Musharraf tangoed and tangled with a number of individuals and institutions, but it is his relationship with the press that is most revealing. To start with, he missed few opportunities to extol the virtues of a free press and did more than any leader in Pakistan’s history to make that free press available with his decision to open up the airwaves and allow a mushrooming of cable channels.
It is a tragedy of Musharraf’s time in office that he came to see this, his one great legacy, as Frankenstein’s monster; before long he was darkly commenting that to speak against him was to speak against the nation, and he imposed draconian curbs on the media when he declared a state of emergency last November – in an act of utter desperation. However, no degree of censorship could obliterate the writing on the wall – clear for everyone except Musharraf to see.
But although he has finally bowed out – there remained no other option once both the army and the US refused to back his bid to stay in power – Pakistan is not really in any condition to be euphoric. Suicide bombings are rampant, the Taliban have control over parts of the country, and the economy is in free fall. To add to this, Zardari and Sharif have given the nation ample reason in the past to deeply mistrust their governance.
In fact, so great is their unpopularity that there exists a vociferous segment of Pakistani society that continues to believe that Musharraf was the better option – “This is Pakistan, not Oz,” a friend angrily wrote to me when I voiced approval of Musharraf’s departure. She meant that in a fairytale world democracy might be an ideal solution, but the corruption and infighting of Pakistan’s democratic leaders still made Musharraf the better choice. But for me her comment merely conjured up an image of Musharraf as the man behind the curtain. And claims of the army’s lack of corruption need to be considered in the context of the staggering degree of economic wealth and influence the top brass has garnered for itself – legally, but not ethically – as discussed in Ayesha Siddiqa’s revealing book Military Inc, published last year.
But even among the strongest supporters of democracy there is anxiety about what tomorrow brings. The removal of Musharraf means Sharif and Zardari no longer have common cause, and the jostling for power between them is likely to get very ugly, just when the country most needs them to put aside personal enmities and deal with the problems at hand. The more frightening truth is that those problems – in terms of both security and the economy – have snowballed so far that there are no quick fixes.
Musharraf’s final machiavellian act in his resignation speech was to paint a picture of his presidency as a period of prosperity, moderation and good governance – set against the dismal state of the nation today, which reflects the abuses of six months of civilian rule. Right now, only the truly deluded would accept that version of events, but the fragility of Pakistan’s democracy makes the months ahead particularly perilous. If things get worse, as they may well do, it will be easy to blame democracy itself. It’s worth bearing in mind a comment made at the South Bank Centre by the Booker-longlisted Mohammed Hanif: “I think we Pakistanis need to be a little more patient with our democrats, and a little less patient with our dictators.”