In the Line of Fire: Are Things Getting too Hot for Musharraf?

The events in Pakistan since the dismissal of the Chief Justice in March on unspecified charges of corruption (allegedly relating to the procurement of a top police job for his son) have been fascinating to observe. It is all too easy to sit back from a distance and wonder, as some have done, as to how Musharraf could have been so badly advised? But Musharraf ’s decision has to be contextualized; it was a calculated move to rid himself of a troublesome opponent.

The Chief Justice had recently demonstrated himself to be a dangerously independent force – rejecting the Government’s attempt to privatize the steel industry, and demanding action over the ‘disappeared’ in Baluchistan. Musharraf has some tough constitutional obstacles to negotiate in the forthcoming months. He desires to be re-elected as President by the existing parliament in which his Pakistan Muslim League (PMLQ) or Quaid-e-Azam, heads a coalition, rather than by a future parliament which could be dominated by less quiescent parties. He also desires to retain his position as Army Chief, correctly perceiving that resignation from this post would condemn him to an irrelevance sooner rather than later. If he succeeds in persuading the current parliament to reelect him and permit him to retain his uniform, these decisions would in all likelihood be subject to a Supreme Court challenge – hence the importance of the opinions of the Chief Justice who has expressed doubts as to whether Musharraf could continue as Army Chief if he were re-elected as President.[1]

Musharraf ’s calculations were upset by the Chief Justice’s decision to challenge the legality of the dismissal. And Musharraf compounded his mistake by the mishandling of the aftermath. The Chief Justice was filmed being manhandled by police into a car, and a bloody battle between his supporters and riot police was broadcast by several TV stations. Several riot police then smashed equipment within one of the TV stations, further inflaming the situation. An apology from Musharraf was not enough to put the jack back in the box. The Chief Justice subsequently toured the country speaking to Provincial Bar Associations. The police were similarly heavy handed at many of these rallies. The beginnings of a popular protest were made. But was this a spark that was waiting to be lit? Consider the evidence. Since late 2006, Musharraf has been trying to make a deal with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), including a return to Pakistan for Benazir Bhutto. It is important to note that this ‘deal’ was only not the result of weakness.

The PPP’s moderate agenda complements Musharraf ’s own secular leanings better than the agenda of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) or even of the PMLQ (the ‘Kings Party’ created by Musharraf to contest the 2002 elections). This can be seen by the PPP’s support in late 2006 for the Women’s Protection Bill. The attempt at a deal also reflected Benazir Bhutto’s own weakness. Although the Bhutto name is a powerful electoral symbol there was a risk that she would become increasingly irrelevant if she failed to contest two consecutive elections (remembering that she has been in exile since 1997 because of corruption charges against her). But Musharraf has also come under increasing pressure from both domestic and international sources. The election of a Democratic Congress in the United States has seen a change in emphasis. In early 2007 both houses of the US Legislature passed resolutions calling for free and fair parliamentary elections[2] and one of the reasons for Benazir’s newly found attractiveness to Musharraf has been because of US pressure to make a deal. In addition, although rarely expressed publicly, the US has also become increasingly concerned about Pakistan’s policies in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – especially with the security pacts that have been made with local tribes. The October 2006 attack on the mosque at Bajaur in FATA which killed eighty people occurred shortly before the visit of Prince Charles and during an attempt to negotiate a peace agreement with tribal elders in the region. It is widely believed in Pakistan that this attack was carried out by the US, annoyed by Pakistan’s refusal to act on intelligence[3] (although the Pakistani military took responsibility for the attack as the less damaging outcome).

The domestic tensions have also been growing on political and economic fronts. Although the Pakistani economy has been growing, massive disparities exist among the population, between provinces, and inflation is high. Another source of tension has been the stand-off in Islamabad over the Red Mosque. In February this year, female students from the adjoining Jamia Hafsa Madrassah for women forcibly occupied a children’s library in protest against the government’s attempt to demolish an illegally constructed mosque. Since then the leader of the Red Mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz has ‘announced plans to establish new Islamic courts and urged his followers to stage suicide attacks if their Taliban-style movement was blocked’.[4] In March, a woman and several female members of her family, including her six-month old granddaughter, were held captive until the woman ‘confessed’ that she had committed immoral acts. The conflict has recently escalated with the government’s arrest of forty students and the mosque’s retaliatory capture of several police. Fearful of alienating another important constituency in an election year, Musharraf and his government have sought a negotiated solution. This has angered many liberal Pakistanis as a recent editorial points out: ‘The nation watches [these negotiations] in a state of shock.’[5] Even after the kidnap of the policeman Musharraf has restated his opposition to direct action: ‘How can we take any action? They have weapons and are also prepared to carry out suicide attacks.’[6]

Musharraf Effigy

It is in this context that the importance of the violence in Karachi on 12 May must be understood. Forty people were killed during the violence that was precipitated by the Provincial Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) Government’s decision to prevent the Chief Justice from addressing the Sindh High Court Bar Association. They are widely believed to have been doing Musharraf ’s biding (as they are partners of the PMLQ in the Federal Government). Musharraf ’s decision to continue to address a rally of the PMLQ in Islamabad later that evening has been widely criticized by Pakistani and foreign observers.[7] Before the Karachi violence, rumours had continued to circulate about an imminent deal between the PPP and Musharraf. Following the 12 May violence in Karachi, these negotiations ended. A few days afterwards Musharraf told Aaj TV that, ‘No, there is nobody returning before elections.’[8] There were always going to be risks for Benazir of too close an association with Musharraf – and the arrogance and indifference displayed to the deaths in Karachi (including of PPP supporters) may well have been the tipping point.   Where does this leave Musharraf and his government? There are a number of possible scenarios. It is unlikely that Musharraf will voluntarily decide to reinstate the Chief Justice although there is a chance he may decide to adhere to a Supreme Court decision on its legality due shortly (but after this article went to press) in an attempt to stop the protests. However, this would leave him seriously weakened in relation to his two goals – being re-elected as President and being permitted to retain his position as Army Chief. In such a scenario, if negotiations were to re-open with the PPP, the PPP would be a much stronger position and the Chief Justice would be even less willing to support Musharraf ’s aims. It is difficult to see how he could continue in Office past the end of 2007. For this reason, this is not a palatable option for him.

In relation to the Red Mosque, the situation is fluid. Musharraf has recently ruled out a crackdown. But if he ultimately decides to avoid elections, he may decide that that this constituency is less important to him. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of the Jama’at-i- Islami, part of the MMA, has recently petitioned the Supreme Court to prevent Musharraf from retaining his position as Army Chief if he is re-elected as President.[9] And the opposition from some members of the MMA over the Women’s Protection Bill also makes them less reliable allies. If a crackdown is attempted, it will lead to violent demonstrations in major cities and possibly worse reprisals of the sort promised by Maulana Abdul Aziz. These are unlikely to seriously destabilize the regime, but could be a prelude to the declaration of a State of Emergency, especially if Musharraf were looking for a pretext to justify such a course of action internationally (e.g., reinforcing his position as the ‘bulwark’ against extremism).

In short, the future is extremely uncertain. Events are changing day to day. An editorial in The Daily Times opined that ‘[a]n Emergency is bound to be accompanied by violence and will end in violence with unpredictable results.’[10] However, the elections that were confidently predicted at the beginning of this year can no longer be relied on. Musharraf is losing friends fast. But it is still too soon to write him off. Although the international community would not approve of a state of emergency, Musharraf remains a key ally in the ‘war against terror’. Part of his success has been due to his ability to portray himself as a defence against Islamic ‘extremists’ to the West, the United States in particular, who will be reluctant to do anything that will destabilize Pakistan. Serious tensions continue in the FATA where up to 700 Pakistani soldiers have been killed. At the end of April, two weeks after he gave a talk at RUSI, Interior Minister Sherpao was the subject of a (failed) assassination attempt in NWFP. US financial support to the Pakistani army and to the regime has not ceased, despite US concerns about Islamabad’s strategy towards the FATA and alleged Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) involvement in re-arming the Taliban.[11] Therefore, even though his ‘defence against extremists’ veneer has been tarnished, as long as Musharraf can command the support of the army (and he has been careful to shore up their support over the last year),[12] he may survive.

Dr Katharine Adeney
Senior Lecturer in Politics
University of Sheffield


[1] ‘Judge row prompts Pakistan democracy questions’, BBC Newsonline, 12 March 2007.

[2] ‘Musharraf’s Legacy’, Economic and Political Weekly, 7 April 2007: 1236-7.

[3] ‘Thousands protest Bajaur attack’, The Daily Times. 4 November 2006.

[4] ‘Pakistan cleric urges suicide attacks’, The Financial Times, 6 April 2007.

[5] ‘A state of Emergency will bring more trouble’, The Daily Times, 9 May 2007.

[6] ‘Musharraf rules out mosque raid’, BBC Newsonline 22 May 2007.

[7] ‘The view from Islamabad’, The Friday Times, 18-24 May 2007.

[8] ‘Musharraf: Rivals will not return’, BBC Newsonline, 18 May 2007.

[9] ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong’, The Friday Times, 18-24 May 2007.

[10] ‘A state of Emergency will bring more trouble’, The Daily Times, 9 May 2007.

[11] ‘US Pays Pakistan to Fight Terror, but Patrols Ebb’, New York Times, 19 May 2007.

[12] ‘Musharraf, the army and 2007’, BBC Newsonline, 29 December 2006.


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