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Musharraf Declaration Seen as Latest Misstep

A human rights activist in Islamabad holds a sign during a rally opposing Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whose approval rating in a recent survey was 21 percent.
A human rights activist in Islamabad holds a sign during a rally opposing Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whose approval rating in a recent survey was 21 percent. (By B.k. Bangash -- Associated Press)

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 5, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 4 -- Gen. Pervez Musharraf prides himself, above all, on being a survivor.

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But after a series of critical missteps this year that turned the courts and nearly the entire country against him, he decided last week that he had only one means of keeping his presidency alive: the extreme step of imposing de facto martial law, a risky choice that even his close advisers say could ultimately prove ruinous.

Musharraf only reluctantly took that step, loyalists say, after other options had been exhausted. But the move also fits a pattern of behavior for Musharraf, one in which the former commando has chosen to shoot his way out of tight situations, using force rather than finesse.

It's worked before, but might not now. Intense domestic opposition is likely to spill out onto the streets, and international condemnation threatens to turn him into an outcast.

"It's a very serious self-inflicted wound," said Mushahid Hussain, a top leader of the ruling party and one of Musharraf's closest advisers. "And I feel it will be difficult to really recover from this wound."

Hussain lobbied hard for Musharraf to avoid declaring an emergency, counseling that he could still allow elections to proceed and the courts to rule, leaving it to the voters and the judges to decide his fate.

But Musharraf's decisions all year have been aimed at keeping a tight grip over his own destiny. It's a strategy that has backfired, causing his popularity to plummet and his options to narrow.

As of March, Musharraf enjoyed widespread support in Pakistan, facing a disjointed opposition that had never gained traction against him despite his more than seven years in power. He seemed a lock for a new term that would extend his reign until 2012.

Some advisers urged him to step down from his job as army chief as soon as possible and then seek a new term as president in a vote by assemblies to be elected by the public.

But Musharraf wanted a sure thing, aides say, and decided on the constitutionally dubious choice of staying in uniform for a vote by the present assemblies, which are packed with his supporters because of tainted elections in 2002.

The only obstacle in his path was the Supreme Court, with its independent-minded chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

On March 9, Musharraf suspended Chaudhry and sought his permanent ouster. The general's descent had begun.

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