For Emigres, Musharraf's Exit Brings Relief, Anxiety

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

If anyone in the Washington area should be jubilant about the resignation of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf this week, it is Asif A. Shah, a District lawyer and impassioned acolyte of democracy in his homeland, who has been circulating petitions and letters for more than a year calling on Musharraf to relinquish power.

Instead, like most Pakistani Americans here, Shah reacted to the former military ruler's departure Monday with a brief sense of relief, followed immediately by worries about how Pakistan's squabbling civilian leaders will cope with the desperate poverty, rampant inflation and rapidly growing threat of Islamic terrorism in the country.

Although they agree that the former army chief had clung to power far too long, area Pakistanis express little confidence that their native country's political rulers and institutions are mature enough to overcome the corruption, elitism and rivalries that have sabotaged attempts at civilian government.

"This is a positive step, but it will only usher Pakistan into a possible democracy," said Shah, one of several thousand Pakistani emigres in the region. "What we need are checks and balances, the rule of law and an independent judiciary. Without that, there will be no way to keep the corrupt politicians in line."

In interviews this week, some area Pakistanis said they hoped Musharraf's departure, which followed elections in February, would bolster the country's credentials abroad. Pakistani leaders in the United States have been lobbying for legislation in Congress that would bring their homeland $750 million in U.S. economic aid. The United States has given Pakistan more than $10 billion in aid, much of it military, since 2001.

Irfan Malik, a businessman in Columbia and an official of the Pakistani American Public Affairs Committee, said the most significant aspect of Musharraf's reluctant departure was that the powerful Pakistani army, which has intervened repeatedly in politics for the past four decades, did not try to save its former chief.

"This is the biggest change that has taken place," Malik said. "The army had lost people's respect, and now it has done the right thing to win it back." He said, however, that if Pakistan's warring political bosses, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, fail to unite and tackle the country's problems, the military could seize power again easily. "This is a golden opportunity for the politicians, but if they mess up again, it may not last long," he said.

Although U.S. policy toward Pakistan has focused on the threat posed by Islamic terrorist groups, some area Pakistanis said they are far more worried about their homeland's economic woes than the rising threat of Islamic militancy, which has led to dozens of attacks there in recent months.

Some Pakistan natives also blamed the United States for embroiling Pakistan in the war against terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They noted that Musharraf, who took power in 1999 with wide popular support, lost it in part because he came to be seen as doing the bidding of the Bush administration in its hunt for al-Qaeda terrorists.

At the Ravi Kabob restaurant in Arlington County, where dozens of Pakistanis were waiting for carry-out orders yesterday evening, there was concern and confusion about Pakistan's future. Some customers said they hoped the new leaders would seek peaceful negotiations with Islamic militants; others said the leaders must use military force.

"These fundamentalist groups are everywhere now. This is the big challenge. I am hopeful that the democratic system can do better than dictatorship, but I cannot imagine how any government, even with the best intentions, can bring peace," said Mohammed Asim, 58, a federal agricultural inspector in the crowd.

Amina Khan, who heads the area chapter of the Association of Pakistani Professionals, said that there is a "huge cloud of disillusionment" with Pakistan's political leaders but that she hopes Musharraf's departure will spur them to join forces and use their new democratic powers to fight extremism and poverty.

"Those of us who live in America have been frustrated with all the finger-pointing and political maneuvering," Khan said. "We tried our best to press for free elections, but so far the new government has been blaming Musharraf for all its problems. Now he's gone, so it's time for them to start working together and do something for the people who elected them."

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