Pakistan’s Silent Majority Is Not to Be Feared

By Mohsin Hamid, the author of “Moth Smoke” and the forthcoming novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 27/03/07):

I WAS one of the few Pakistanis who actually voted for Gen. Pervez Musharraf in the rigged referendum of 2002. I recall walking into a polling station in Islamabad and not seeing any other voter. When I took the time required to read the convoluted ballot, I was accosted by a man who had the overbearing attitude of a soldier although he was in civilian clothes. He insisted that I hurry, which I refused to do. He then hovered close by, watching my every action, in complete defiance of electoral rules.

Despite this intimidation, I still voted in favor of the proposition that General Musharraf, who had seized power in a coup in 1999, should continue as Pakistan’s president for five more years. I believed his rule had brought us much-needed stability, respite from the venal and self-serving elected politicians who had misgoverned Pakistan in the 1990s, and a more free and vibrant press than at any time in the country’s history.

The outcome of the referendum — 98 percent support for General Musharraf from an astonishing 50 percent turnout — was so obviously false that even he felt compelled to disown the exercise.

Rigged elections rankle, of course. But since then, secular, liberal Pakistanis like myself have seen many benefits from General Musharraf’s rule. My wife was an actress in “Jutt and Bond,” a popular Pakistani sitcom about a Punjabi folk hero and a debonair British agent. Her show was on one of the many private television channels that have been permitted to operate in the country, featuring everything from local rock music to a talk show whose host is a transvestite.

My sister, a journalism lecturer in Lahore, loves to tell me about the enormous growth in recent years in university financing, academic salaries and undergraduate enrollment. And my father, now retired but for much of his career a professor of economics, says he has never seen such a dynamic and exciting time in Pakistani higher education.

But there have been significant problems under General Musharraf, too. Pakistan has grown increasingly divided between the relatively urban and prosperous regions that border India and the relatively rural, conservative and violent regions that border Afghanistan. The two mainstream political parties have historically bridged that divide and vastly outperformed religious extremists in free elections, but under General Musharraf they have been marginalized in a system that looks to one man for leadership.

What many of us hoped was that General Musharraf would build up the country’s neglected institutions before eventually handing over power to a democratically elected successor. Those hopes were dealt a serious blow two weeks ago, when he suspended the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.

For General Musharraf, Justice Chaudhry had become a major irritant. He had opened investigations into government “disappearances” of suspects in the war on terrorism. He had blocked the showcase privatization of the national steel mill. He had, in other words, demonstrated that he would not do General Musharraf’s bidding. With elections due later this year, and challenges to irregularities like the rigging that took place in 2002 likely to end up in the Supreme Court, an independent chief justice could jeopardize General Musharraf’s continued rule.

Like many Pakistanis, I knew little about Justice Chaudhry except that he had a reputation for being honest, and that under his leadership, the Supreme Court had reduced its case backlog by 60 percent. His suspension seemed a throwback to the worst excesses of the government that General Musharraf’s coup had replaced, and it galvanized protests by the nation’s lawyers and opposition parties, including rallies of thousands in several of Pakistan’s major cities yesterday.

More troubling still was the phone call I received recently from a friend who works for Geo, one of Pakistan’s leading independent television channels. The government had placed enormous pressure on Geo to stop showing the demonstrations in support of Justice Chaudhry, and the channel had refused to comply. When my friend told me that policemen had broken into Geo’s offices, smashed its equipment and beaten up the staff, I felt utterly betrayed by the man I had voted for.

Despite his subsequent apology for the Geo incident, General Musharraf now appears to be more concerned with perpetuating his rule than with furthering the cause of “enlightened moderation” that he had claimed to champion. He has never been particularly popular, but he is now estranging the liberals who previously supported his progressive ends if not his autocratic means. People like me are realizing that the short-term gains from even a well-intentioned dictator’s policies can be easily reversed.

General Musharraf must recognize that his popularity is dwindling fast and that the need to move toward greater democracy is overwhelming. The idea that a president in an army uniform will be acceptable to Pakistanis after this year’s elections is becoming more and more implausible.

The United States has provided enormous financial and political support to General Musharraf’s government, but it has focused on his short-term performance in the war on terror. America must now take a long-term view and press General Musharraf to reverse his suspension of the chief justice and of Pakistan’s press freedoms. He should be encouraged to see that he cannot cling to power forever.

Pakistan is both more complicated and less dangerous than America has been led to believe. General Musharraf has portrayed himself as America’s last line of defense in an angry and dangerous land. In reality, the vast majority of Pakistanis want nothing to do with violence. When thousands of cricket fans from our archenemy, India, wandered about Pakistan unprotected for days in 2004, not one was abducted or killed. At my own wedding two years ago, a dozen Americans came, disregarding State Department warnings. They, too, spent their time in Pakistan without incident.

Yes, there are militants in Pakistan. But they are a small minority in a country with a population of 165 million. Religious extremists have never done well in elections when the mainstream parties have been allowed to compete fairly. Nor does the Pakistan Army appear to be in any great danger of falling into radical hands: by all accounts the commanders below General Musharraf broadly agree with his policies.

An exaggerated fear of Pakistan’s people must not prevent America from realizing that Pakistanis are turning away from General Musharraf. By prolonging his rule, the general risks taking Pakistan backward and undermining much of the considerable good that he has been able to achieve. The time has come for him to begin thinking of a transition, and for Americans to realize that, scare stories notwithstanding, a more democratic Pakistan might be better not just for Pakistanis but for Americans as well.