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.
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.
Once the move was made, the battle lines were drawn for a classic Pakistani struggle: the lawyers vs. the generals. But it also galvanized the public against military rule for the first time since Musharraf came to power in a 1999 coup.
"The photograph that was published in the newspapers showing an arrogant General Musharraf in full military regalia with the chief justice, rapping his knuckles like he was a young schoolboy, that shook the nation," said Aitzaz Ahsan, who led a successful nationwide campaign for Chaudhry's restoration. "Naturally, the lawyers felt the pain more than anyone else."
Ahsan spoke in an interview late last week, before he and dozens of other senior lawyers were arrested in the hours after Musharraf's emergency declaration.
Pakistan was founded by a lawyer, the moderate and secular-minded Mohammed Ali Jinnah. But it is the generals who have reigned supreme for more than half of the country's 60-year history. All have come to power on promises of staying only a short while and voluntarily restoring democratic rule as soon as the time was right. None have kept their word.
Musharraf had vowed to be different. But critics say the general has spent the year confirming that he has little interest in ever yielding to others. His government violently suppressed opposition protests. It shut down the independent media when coverage became too intense. And it deported Musharraf's predecessor, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, in violation of a Supreme Court order.
Saturday's decision, critics say, is the final proof of Musharraf's true nature.
"This is consistent with who he is. He wants all power all the time," said Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst. "He's not prepared to share power with anyone."
Musharraf, though, is not alone in that respect, Masood said.
"Each of our leaders, whether military or civilian, thinks he or she is the sole custodian of patriotism and nationalism," Masood said. "This is the Greek tragedy of Pakistan."
Now, Musharraf's fate might be in the hands of those other leaders. Musharraf has an anemic public approval rating -- 21 percent, according to a recent survey -- and has angered his most important international backer, the United States. Now that he has declared emergency rule, it is unclear where he goes next.
"Unfortunately, the inevitable outcome of such decisions is that you end up retreating into a bunker with a siege mentality," said Hussain, the Musharraf adviser. "You try to shoot your way through, but at the end of the day, you can't."
Many analysts say they think there's an opening for Musharraf's political opponents to mobilize against him. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, for instance, has the ability to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets against Musharraf.
But it is unclear whether she will; she has been negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf for months, and any street agitation by her supporters would jeopardize those talks.
The top leaders of other opposition parties have been imprisoned. While the lawyers are certain to protest, their numbers are comparatively small. And with independent television blacked out, the police and army could use violence to put down anti-Musharraf demonstrations without inflaming public opinion.
Meanwhile, the most influential constituency in Pakistan -- the military -- seems to be solidly behind Musharraf, at least for now.
Musharraf seems to believe he has something else going for him as well. The general has survived suicide attacks, a plane hijacking and even an instance when he fell out of a mango tree. "I have confronted death and defied it several times in the past because destiny and fate have always smiled on me," Musharraf wrote in his 2006 memoirs. "I only pray that I have more than the proverbial nine lives of a cat."