ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 17 -- Himayat Ullah sat in a drafty cafeteria at Quaid-i-Azam University on Thursday pondering a greasy fried egg and wondering whether the United States would start holding Pakistan to the same democratic standards it has repeatedly called for in the Middle East.
"America is safeguarding its own interests and not giving Pakistan a chance to be a democratic country," said Ullah, 26, who is pursuing an advanced degree in history. "In the Middle East, America is talking about democracy, but here, they don't say a thing."
Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discuss talks during a news conference in Islamabad.
(Mian Khursheed -- Reuters)
Almost in the same breath, however, Ullah seemed to contradict himself. He asserted that whatever his doubts about the bloodless 1999 army coup that brought Gen. Pervez Musharraf to power, the Pakistani president has, on balance, been good for the country, steering it away from Islamic extremism and toward a more prosperous and stable future.
"Now the country is moving in the right direction," Ullah said, taking a drag on a cigarette.
Ullah and other students were interviewed on the occasion of a visit to Pakistan by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met with Musharraf over dinner Thursday. The students at Quaid-i-Azam, one of Pakistan's elite public universities, expressed ambivalence about the closely intertwined topics of democracy, Musharraf and his cozy relationship with the United States.
They are keenly aware of the contrast between the U.S. policy to promote democracy in the Middle East and its approach toward Pakistan, where terrorism and nuclear proliferation continue to top the list of concerns.
At the same time, they are uncomfortable with the idea of deeper U.S. involvement in Pakistan's internal politics -- even in the case of free elections -- and welcome Musharraf's efforts to project a more moderate image for Pakistan abroad, even if he has yet to deliver on many promises at home.
"Democracy is an internal issue, so I don't think other countries should involve themselves," said Zahid Rashid, 24, a computer science student and civil servant's son in khakis and a blue oxford shirt. "The people of Pakistan should themselves solve this problem."
In the more than five years since he overthrew an elected civilian government, Musharraf has often spoken of restoring democracy. But his record has not matched his rhetoric. Musharraf has manipulated political parties and reneged on a pledge to step down as army chief of staff by the end of 2004.
He has also failed to follow through on several key initiatives aimed at liberalizing Pakistani society. Fierce opposition from religious conservatives, for example, forced the army leader to back away from a plan to strictly regulate Islamic seminaries known as madrassas, some of which are seen as incubators for terrorists.
Similarly, Musharraf kept to the sidelines this month while Islamic parties -- allied with some members of the main pro-government party -- derailed legislation that would have strengthened the law against the killing of women in so-called honor cases.
"Practically, he has so far failed," said Sen. Syed Kabir Wasti, a self-described liberal whose assessment is noteworthy because he is the chief spokesman for the pro-government party, and, in theory, a supporter of Musharraf's policies. "He has failed to change the behavior of the nation. They have not discarded mullahs."
But Wasti said he did not doubt Musharraf's desire to curb extremist influences in Pakistan and said the military leader had decided to keep his army post in part to retain influence over military promotion boards -- and thus to block the advancement of army officers sympathetic to religious hard-liners.
U.S. officials defend Musharraf as a moderate who has provided critical support in the hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in the rugged tribal region that straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border. They deny they are neglecting democracy -- citing, for example, aid programs to strengthen parliament and political parties -- and express high hopes for national elections scheduled for 2007.