By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 10, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 9 -- President Pervez Musharraf backed off Thursday from imposing a national state of emergency after TV news reports of such a plan triggered condemnation across Pakistan and expressions of concern from the Bush administration.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, returning from a peace conference in Afghanistan, told reporters that he had met with Musharraf and there was no likelihood of an emergency being imposed at this time. He said the country would hold national elections on schedule by mid-October.
Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani was also quoted by Dawn television as saying there was "no possibility" of an emergency and Musharraf believed in holding elections on time.
But even as fears of a crackdown appeared to be abating, the mere prospect was causing tension and uncertainty among Pakistanis about their country's political future. Concerns lingered that Musharraf, an army general who has been under increasing attack from political and religious opponents, could still impose such a measure.
"This was a last resort for someone who is trying to hold on to power and has reached a dead end," said Talaat Massood, a retired army general and military analyst here. "It was totally unacceptable to the people, and it would have had extremely grave consequences for the nation."
Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, has made no secret of his desire to be elected president by the national Parliament and provincial assemblies, but he has refused to set a date for a vote or to say whether he will step down as army chief, which many Pakistanis are demanding.
With his popularity declining, Musharraf has been forced to fight for his political survival, to the point of holding negotiations on a possible power-sharing deal with his chief civilian rival, exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Meanwhile, observers said that some of the president's close advisers had pushed him to impose a state of emergency, which might have allowed voting to be postponed or suspended. But there was categorical opposition to that idea across the political spectrum Thursday.
"This was an ill-advised idea based on fear, but there is nothing to be afraid of and no justification for it," said Sen. Mushahid Hussein of the Pakistan Muslim League. Hussein said that certain associates had given Musharraf a "man-of-destiny complex" but that ultimately he would have to give up power, shed his uniform and become "Mr. Musharraf."
Massood, the military analyst, said that imposing a state of emergency similar to crackdowns carried out by previous military rulers would aggravate many of Pakistan's problems and "delight" Islamic extremists by driving a deeper wedge between government and public. Although Pakistan was founded as a Muslim democracy, it has endured several military takeovers and long periods of army rule.
Members of Pakistan's pro-democracy movement, which gained momentum this spring from protests by the legal community after Musharraf suspended the nation's chief justice, said they would have launched an even more energetic protest campaign if the president had gone ahead with an emergency plan and suspended civil liberties.
"There was an immediate outpouring of outrage," said Sen. Atizaz Ahsan, a lawyer and leader of the Pakistan People's Party who led the campaign to restore the suspended judge. "This time the lawyers would come out on the streets again, and the agitation would be more vigorous."
Analysts here said pressure from the Bush administration, especially a late-night call Wednesday to Musharraf from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had played a key role in persuading him not to carry out an emergency order, which some sources said he had already signed.
President Bush, speaking to reporters in Washington, said that although Pakistan was a sovereign nation, the United States would "expect there to be swift action taken if there is actionable intelligence" on insurgents operating inside Pakistan. He also said he had focused on the need for "free and fair elections."
The Bush administration has pressured Musharraf in recent months to forcefully curb Islamic extremist groups after his effort to negotiate a truce with them failed. It has also threatened to send U.S. troops across the border from Afghanistan to pursue insurgents.
Musharraf has been said to deeply resent this threat, especially because Pakistani troops are engaged in fierce battles with insurgents in the volatile tribal regions that border Afghanistan. Suicide bombings and armed clashes have caused numerous army casualties.
This week, Musharraf unexpectedly canceled a trip to Kabul, the Afghan capital, where he was to participate in a bilateral peace conference aimed at improving cooperation against terrorism. Observers here said he did so because he was angry at Washington and did not want to give credence to an event promoted by the U.S. government. Musharraf sent Aziz in his place.
"They are upset with the Yanks, and they feel unfairly blamed for the situation in Afghanistan," Hussein said. He said Musharraf and his aides thought it would send the wrong signal inside Pakistan if he were to make a high-profile appearance at an "American-orchestrated" meeting.