Between a Dictatorship and a Hard Place

Although General Musharraf has condemned this act of terrorism, he must be relieved at the removal of his most serious opponent who repeatedly questioned his legitimacy.
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The shocking assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto signals an era of extreme political instability, that may result in paralysis of the political process and hence chaos in Pakistan. Like the Gandhi Family who fell victims to assassins during India's transition to democracy, Pakistan's Bhutto Family is following a similar fate. It is difficult to determine exactly who is responsible for the murder of Pakistan's favorite daughter, but almost all political factions may use the situation to further their cause.

In the end, as always, it is the democratic process and the Pakistani people who have the most to lose.

Although General Musharraf has condemned this act of terrorism, he must be relieved at the removal of his most serious opponent who repeatedly questioned his legitimacy. In a piece she wrote for Huffington Post last September, Bhutto described Pakistan under Musharraf's command as follows:

Almost a decade of military dictatorship has devastated the basic infrastructure of democracy. Political parties have been assaulted, political leaders arrested, and the judicial system manipulated to force party leaders into exile. NGOs have been under constant attack, especially those that deal with human rights, democratic values and women's rights. The press has been intimidated, with some reporters -- even those that work for papers like the New York Times -- arrested, beaten or made to disappear. Student and labor unions have not been allowed to function. The electoral institutions of the nation have been manipulated by an Election Commission that could not stop rigging and fraud. And in the battle against terrorism, we look on with dismay as the government of Pakistan ceded sections of our nation that previously had been governed by the rule of law to Taliban sympathizers and to Al Qaeda, making Pakistan the Petri dish of the international terrorist movement.

Despite a questionable record during her tenure as Prime Minister of Pakistan, Bhutto remained the most popular political challenge for Musharraf, and publicly demanded implementation of democratic values, especially freedom for political parties and civil society. In her blog on Huffington Post she wrote:

It seemed now that the country had an opportunity to peacefully transition to democracy, which is critical for the other war - the war of moderation against extremism -- to succeed.

Unfortunately, Bhutto's assassination greatly diminishes the possibility of democratic change in Pakistan under Musharraf's rule anytime soon. The US has relied on him to help lead the War on Terrorism in the region, despite his increasing fall from popularity. With Bhutto -- the only contender for transitioning Pakistan into a democracy -- out of the picture, the US has no choice but to continue supporting Musharraf's government, given the dangerous flourishing of radical Islamists there.

Musharraf is bound to turn this tragedy into an opportunity to show the West and US, that only a powerful military man can control the country, keep nuclear arsenal out of the terrorists' hands, target extremists, and avoid complete chaos. Unfortunately, the US is caught in a dilemma of supporting a dictator who suppresses its people and civil society. This pattern has been repeatedly appeared in US Middle East foreign policy, from the Shah of Iran, to Saddam Hussein of Iraq, to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and more recently Musharraf of Pakistan: US is once again stuck between a dictator and a hard place.

Despite ample US aid to Pakistan, not only are the Taliban and Al-Qaeda strong as ever, and terrorism in the region rampant, but also signs of democracy and Pakistani civil society are sparse. Musharraf who has been a target of Al-Qaeda himself, is accused of playing a double-game. However, given current security issues in Pakistan, the US faces a challenging choice between supporting Musharraf or following rhetoric of US presidential candidates in the last 48 hours, who are calling for a cut in funding and aid to Musharraf's government.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto will paralyze the political process, weaken the democratic movement and give rise to violence to the political sphere. Musharraf who has hardly been successful in controlling the growth of fundamentalism in Pakistan and beyond its borders with Afghanistan, faces a huge legitimacy crisis, as he is neither popular in Pakistan nor the West.

Imminent questions remain such as will US act more forcefully in its war on terror, who will they support, where is this unstable society headed, can this tragedy revitalize democracy or strengthen extremism, and more importantly, after Musharraf, who will be able to lead the country toward security, peace, and democracy?

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