Bush + Musharraf = Busharraf. This is what Pakistanis call their "enlightened moderate" (or is it, moderately enlightened) dictator.
I met President Musharraf after 9/11. He held a talk and a dinner at the Marriott in DC, and the Pakistani Embassy invited members of the Pakistani-American community. He gave a short talk and then announced that dinner would be served. What kind of dinner was it? Musharraf and his wife came out, sat down on their table all by themselves, which was then cordoned off from the rest of the tables, and we could go to the edge of the restricted area and take pictures of the couple as they ate. I got as close to them as I could with my disposable Kodak and started snapping. I got a couple of good ones of Musharraf biting into a drumstick. Realizing the absurdity of the situation, I stopped taking pictures, raised my voice and got the attention of the autocratic couple.
"Thank you for coming all this way," I said to them.
Musharraf pretended not to hear me (even though he was no more than six feet from me). His wife, sweet as she is classy, smiled back and made eye contact.
"We really appreciate what you and the general are doing with Pakistan," I said to Mrs. Musharraf. That wasn't a lie. I did appreciate Musharraf's litany of ideas about economic reform, fixing up the madrassa problem, thoughts on creating jobs, as well as his openness to receive ideas from the Pakistani diaspora. For example, even before 9/11 he had solicited bright Pakistanis in the field of economics and development from around the world and given them fellowships in Islamabad right under Shaukat Aziz, former World Banker and then Finance Minister.
When they merely smiled back I felt I needed to take the conversation further so I stammered: "I'm a writer!"
The security guard moved in to push me away. However, Mrs. Musharraf gestured for the guard to leave me alone and asked what I was working on. By this point President Musharraf was also paying attention.
"I'm working on a book about Pakistan," I replied. That wasn't a lie either: a majority of the book I was writing at the time was set in Pakistan. "It's a novel. Some of it is about politics."
"That's great," she replied. "We need more writers! We need young people like you!"
She seemed so happy to discover me that I did not tell her that I was an American citizen.
"I'm a bit concerned how it will be received in Pakistan," I confessed to her.
"Why is that?" this time President Musharraf asked, obviously intrigued.
"Well, writers have a tense relationship with dictators, and I remember what happened to Salman Rushdie when he criticized Khomeini."
Mrs. Musharraf laughed. President Musharraf simply replied that I should show him the book when I finished. He also didn't seem offended. He seemed genuine in his invitation to me.
As a 20 year old recent college graduate, I was very satisfied with my banter and barely veiled criticism of an autocrat. I told the couple I would contact them when my book was published (no dice on that still), took a few more pictures and then went back to my seat.
My episode of insulting Musharraf at the Marriott (there is a catchy alliteration) illustrates the simple fact that no matter how reformist, economically forward, religiously moderate, enlightened or open-minded a dictator, the average person will never be able to get over his resentment towards such a leader. There are a number of reasons.
First, a dictatorship is afflicted with the original sin of having seized power with violence, and therefore, is always on the lookout for further acts of violence that in turn would strip it of power. Resting upon such bases, a dictatorship is bereft of the psychological calm that comes from being popularly elected and becomes an anxious little demon. I say demon because no matter the dictator's moderation, his power is always unchecked (since it exists above and beyond the rule of law).
Second, because a dictatorship that must pander to Western democracies is caught in an Orwellian double-think -- of holding as faith two mutually contradictory beliefs. It repeats over and over that 2+ 2 is 5 with the hope that others will start to believe the answer of the equation is 5 as well. Western politics are fundamentally at odds with dictatorship and both sides know this. The result of this double-think is even more Orwellian because the only logical step the dictator can take is to polish and sharpen his propaganda and hide and muffle his mistakes. In other words, he ends up creating a subterranean untouched space which is hidden from the world -- the world of torture and house arrests and strongly worded 'suggestions.' Yet, inevitably, and relentlessly (for such is the darkness of this position), even the dictator ceases to be aware of the existence of this abyss (into which people keep disappearing). And with clarity in his eyes and true patriotic fervor in his voice he speaks about free speech and free market and free expression and free religion, all the while imposing such freedom upon his subjects without nary a pat on his gun.
Third, because it has been made unmistakably clear that a polity where the power to express thoughts related to power monopolized by one man, is ultimately a haven for the self-proclaimed freedom-fighters; who then are but one step away from being termed "extremists" and "terrorists." In those cases in which they are legitimate freedom fighters, a dictatorship is faced with the prospect of men who, because they don't have a voice, have taken recourse to the gun; while the dictatorship, precisely because it rules with the gun, does not have the moral capital to strip the rebel of his arms. Thus, the dictator has no choice but to use bullets as his solution and the freedom-fighter, even if he had been keeping terrorists at bay, is turned into a terrorist himself. [For further analysis of the Balochistan separatist spiral, please consult all of these resources].
The population of Pakistan is not stupid. It recognizes the hypocrisy and absurdity of these actions and it turns away from the so called reforms the dictator is propagating under the protection (if not patronage) of his Western overlord, even if the reforms would benefit them.
Until recently Musharraf had a few things going for him. He had been able to mollify and appeal to Pakistan's large moderate center by keeping the attention on the "Talibanization" of the country (which is real). Also, by using exile as a tool he deprived the moderate center from having symbols around whom to rally. Finally, he worked hard on creating a better economic culture (even funding a securities and exchange commission), that brought a lot of foreign investment to Lahore and Karachi. Now, the first two bulwarks have fallen.
Led by the lawyers of the country, who became agitated when Musharraf removed the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court based on charges of corruption, the moderate center ceased paying attention to the Taliban style militias and War on Terror. They suddenly realized that their leader was an autocrat. They took to the streets in defense of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the rule of law. Thus, the Chief Justice became the symbol around which the populists and opposition could rally. Musharraf tried to demonstrate that the Chief Justice actually was corrupt (and the case is pending before the Supreme Judiciary Council and verdict comes out tomorrow). However, the damage had been done.
The opposition parties latched onto the Chief Justice and started parading him around the country like a golden calf. Things were peaceful and calm, relatively speaking, until the Chief Justice decided to go to Karachi over the weekend. Karachi is home to the MQM, the backbone party in the Musharraf coalition. Acting like Musharraf's bulldogs (though arguably not at his behest), the MQM put on a show of force, prevented the Chief Justice from speaking at his venue, and blocked the city's streets. Riots started. 34 people died, the death toll is rising, and everyone is claiming that Karachi is burning. It is. In fact, the Pakistani papers say the country is bleeding. These graphic (warning!) pictures put the seriousness of the situation in perspective. Given that media outlets and private TV stations were also attacked, now the media has joined the lawyers in opposing Musharraf.
The possibility exists that the Musharraf cat is out of the bag and that the military, behaving in a corporatist fashion, will replace him with a more amenable general, while sending Musharraf off to live in the West. Then, the new face will announce elections in the near future, and Pakistan will once again go back to a democratic government. The problem with this scenario is that the democratic leaders are a coterie of inept, unjust, violent felons and convicts, who in the past have used violence, virulent fascist violence, to destroy their opponents and pillage small business and punish citizens. The fear with democracy in Pakistan is not, as some members of the right-wing claim, that the Islamists will take over. Most of the democrats are, if not committed to quasi-secular principles, relatively uncaring towards political Islam. Rather, the fear is that the democrats are self-obsessed, greedy, and rapacious no matter what ideology they belong to.
The possibility also exists that Musharraf will be able to avoid being removed, appease the populists by reaching a power sharing deal, and stick around for a few more years until he himself renounces the dictatorship. If it looks that the populist protests are not dying down very soon, I recommend the U.S. ask (and help) Musharraf to go this route.
Either way, two things are certain. First, no one in Pakistan is looking for Bin Laden. Second, Pakistan is now as important as Iraq and Iran on the global stage.
Email: Eteraz at gmail dot com