A day after they overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and placed him and his top aides under house arrest, Pakistan's military leaders searched today for a way to form a new government that would not be seen as unconstitutional.
The country has remained calm throughout the crisis, and there have been no reports of bloodshed. Service was restored today at the nation's airports and telephone network. Troops guarded key buildings but were not visible in the streets. Most businesses were open, although banks and the stock exchange in Karachi, the country's financial center and largest city, remained closed on military orders.
Top military officials met with senior civilian politicians and legal experts--including the head of the Supreme Court and the president, whose post is largely ceremonial--but by late tonight they had made no new announcements and gave no indication of what they may be planning.
Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, the army chief of staff, announced the takeover early this morning, saying that the military had seized power "as a last resort" to save Pakistan from economic and political collapse, and because Sharif had tried to "politicize and destabilize" the army. The coup came just hours after Sharif attempted to dismiss Musharraf, with whom the prime minister had been at odds for several months.
Although Pakistan was quiet today, foreign governments and international organizations sharply criticized the military takeover, the fourth since Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947.
The International Monetary Fund said it will suspend a $1.5 billion loan for Pakistan and would provide no new aid until democracy is restored. The European Union announced it would not sign a cooperative accord with the country and threatened to sever ties if a civilian government is not reestablished. Pakistan is deeply in debt and heavily dependent on Western loans for economic survival.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said the coup made it "difficult to carry on business as usual" with the longtime U.S. ally. "We expect them to return to democratic rule and want to hear what their plans are," Albright said at the University of Maine.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who began a new term in office today, expressed concern about the takeover but said he sees no immediate cause for alarm. "We remain committed to developing friendly and cooperative ties with Pakistan based on mutual trust and confidence, for which the government of Pakistan needs to create the right environment," Vajpayee said, according to news services.
The whereabouts of Sharif and his brother, Shabbaz, were unclear tonight. They were initially confined to the prime minister's home here, but they were moved early today to an undisclosed location under heavy military guard. Relatives said they could not obtain any information about them.
Most Pakistanis seemed concerned about the military takeover but not strongly opposed to it, partly because the Sharif government had become extremely unpopular because of economic troubles and the prime minister's autocratic style. In addition, the military has shown no indication that it wants to hold political power permanently. Unlike previous military interventions in 1958, 1969 and 1977, Musharraf did not impose martial law, dissolve parliament or suspend the constitution.
"People are not upset; life is normal," said Mustaq Ahmed, 61, a Karachi engineer. "Let us hope this is a change for the better. We do believe in democracy, but our basic problems are economic. Whether it's the old leader or a new leader at the top, we will still have to borrow money to survive."
Musharraf and his aides spent most of the day in private meetings with civilians, reportedly trying to find a method of replacing the ousted Sharif government with one that would satisfy constitutional requirements and dispel international fears that martial law would be imposed.
"There are hectic consultations going on, and an effort [is being made] to keep the constitutional framework intact. They want something that will be legitimate and acceptable," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of strategic studies at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University.
One possibility would be to form an interim civilian-led government; another would be to hold new elections. However, it was unclear whether military officials would be able to reach agreement with key civilian leaders, including members of the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. The National Assembly is scheduled to meet Thursday, and military officials were said to be hoping to preempt the legislature from passing a resolution condemning the takeover.
Musharraf called on President Rafiq Tarar, a staunch Sharif loyalist, to endorse the military action and continue as the constitutional head of government, according to official sources. A spokesman for Tarar refused to comment on the meeting, but state TV broadcast footage of the smiling general speaking with a grim-faced president.
A second key meeting, between a senior military commander and Supreme Court Chief Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqi, apparently made no headway toward a constitutional solution, official sources said. Military authorities reportedly contacted Siddiqi before Musharraf announced the coup.
"It's not a deadlock situation," a senior army official said tonight. "There is no hurry; we are weighing various legal options."
Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada, a leading constitutional expert who met with Musharraf today, said there is "absolute confusion about the legal and constitutional status" of the current situation. But headded that the Supreme Court might still uphold the military action. "When the house is on fire, one tries to rescue whatever is left," he said.
Officials of Sharif's political party, the Pakistan Muslim League, made no public statement about the coup, but they reportedly plan to challenge it in the Supreme Court in the next several days. Some leading dissidents in the party, however, reportedly have been included in meetings with military officials, along with leaders of opposition parties and other groups.
Meanwhile, there were reports of celebrations in the streets of Lahore and other cities. Some people said they believe the army will help solve the nation's economic crisis or bring an end to a recent spate of sectarian violence between rival Muslim sects.
"I am only bothered about my bread and butter," said Hasan Chachar, who works at a tea stall in Karachi. "The power game is for rich people, not for us."
Relations between Sharif and Musharraf have been tense since July, when Sharif withdrew Pakistani irregular forces from the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, ending a 10-week border conflict with Indian troops. The military viewed the withdrawal as a humiliation. Last week, Sharif appeared to make peace with Musharraf by extending his tenure in office, but then he announced his dismissal.
"For the last 10 years the army has not interfered in democracy, but Nawaz has interfered so many times with the army, and they are angry. A general should be treated with respect," said Ashezai Khan, 55, a corporate personnel officer. "This is not good for the country, but I do not believe they will bring martial law. I hope Musharraf will try to settle things in a constitutional way."
CAPTION: President Rafiq Tarar, left, talks with Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, who led a coup against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday. Musharraf asked Tarar to remain as the constitutional head of government.
CAPTION: Supporters of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto celebrate the ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Bhutto urged the army to facilitate a swift return to civilian rule by setting up a caretaker government.