Musharraf: Pakistan's Man of Crisis
Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, died Sunday, February 5, 2023, in exile in Dubai at age 79. The following is excerpted from the book Alive and Well in Pakistan by Blue Ear Books publisher Ethan Casey, who taught journalism for a semester at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore in 2003-04, while Musharraf was president.
On Christmas Day  there was another attempt on Musharraf’s life, this time two blasts at a gas station in Rawalpindi, carefully timed to go off as his motorcade passed. The two assassination attempts brought into relief the brittleness of the country’s stability. Musharraf was only the latest of many Pakistani leaders to have failed to square the circle. Civilian prime ministers had to come to terms with the army; military men had to go through the democratic motions; no one was ever happy with the results. The latest political shell game – indeed, the day’s big news on December 25, until the bomb blasts – was Musharraf’s promise to step down as army chief at the end of 2004. But all sorts of things might have happened by then to render the point moot: Musharraf might have found an excuse to rescind his promise, or he might be dead. “The attempt to legitimize a military government, this whole system that Musharraf has so carefully constructed for his own survival, will go the moment he goes,” [the Pakistani journalist and author] Ahmed Rashid told me.
Musharraf had been a paratrooper, and no one could fault him for lacking nerve. “No problem,” he told reporters after the first attempt, on December 14. “I am used to such things.” But Pakistanis’ expectations were always unrealistically high as well as contradictory, which was why they were always doomed to bitter disappointment. “I don’t think he has it in him to be a dictator,” Helga Ahmed’s husband, Jamil, complained to me. “You have to believe in something, and you have to be ruthless. Hitler, whatever his bad qualities and however history may judge him, had it in him.”
“Do you think it’s unfortunate for Pakistan that Musharraf doesn’t have it in him to be a dictator?” I had asked.
“Yes, it is unfortunate,” he replied. “One time I asked him how he planned to deal with the fundamentalists. He said, ‘These things are the result of poverty, illiteracy, and overpopulation.’ I thought that was a very facile thing to say. You could say that about many things. He doesn’t believe in anything. He’s wishy-washy.”
Jamil and Helga’s son Temur disliked Musharraf too, though for different reasons. When I told him my colleague Taimur-ul-Hassan felt Musharraf was better for the secular classes than Benazir [Bhutto] had been, he said: “He’s not alone. There were a lot of people with liberal pretensions who said ‘He’s liberal, he had his picture taken with two poodles, he drinks, so we should support him.’ But at the end of the day, he’s still a dictator. It took a C-130 to get rid of our last dictator.”
The civilian political class was restive and bored. “When the military is in charge, politics is not possible,” a man who had been a student politician and active in the Pakistan People’s Party told me. He said he might go back into politics “when Musharraf goes.” I asked when that might be.
“Ten years, twenty years.”
“He almost went a few days ago,” I said. “He could go next week.”
“Yes.” It was the verbal equivalent of a shrug.
“It’s just one man’s friendship with the United States, and security of his job, and everyone is paying the price for it,” Raja Ashfaq Sarwar, who had been a minister under Nawaz Sharif, told me.
“What happens after he goes?” I asked.
“Americans should worry about this, not us.”
“He’ll probably be succeeded by another liberal-ish general,” said a newspaper columnist in Karachi. “But how many liberal generals are left?”
“Is he going to get killed eventually?” I asked Asad Rehman, Rashid Rehman’s brother.
“Most probably,” he said. “In this type of situation, no matter how much security you put around yourself, there’s always going to be an element, maybe even within your own security apparatus. Look at Indira Gandhi’s death.”
Military men were sanguine. Musharraf’s death “might make some difference outside,” said a retired major who showed up most days for tennis at the Gymkhana. “But here, we’re used to it. There’s hardly ever been a transfer of power in a normal way. There would be confusion for a few days.”
I asked my favorite tennis friend, Mian Amjad, for a prediction. His answer was to remember the fall of Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator, who ruled from 1958 to 1969. “I was in England, and there was great uncertainty about Ayub Khan and [Zulfikar Ali] Bhutto and all of that,” he said. “One of my friends asked me, ‘Will Ayub Khan remain president, with so many rallies going against him?’ I said, ‘He has done so much for the country. He will be there for another ten years.’ When I came back, he was gone.”
I assigned my students to write about the assassination attempts, and we talked about them in class.
“If he dies, then what’s going to happen?” asked Ayela Deen.
“The country will be in a chaos,” said Zainab.
“Sir, it’s not such a big thing to say if Musharraf would die, but what about his family?” said Sadaf. “Aren’t they shit scared?”
“This country is already in a state of confusion, and the extremist parties are already against him,” said Ayela Deen. “Once Musharraf conks off, do you think whoever takes his place would want to follow the same path?”
“I have a question,” said Amit, the Indian boy. “Everybody is talking about army, army. What about the democracy?”
“It’s a pseudo-democracy really,” said Ayela. “This is not a democratic country.”
“Even America doesn’t have a proper democratic system,” said Neelum.
“Democracy is an ideal,” said Ayla Hassan. “Because it assures that everyone has equal rights, which is not possible. I think dictatorship is quite a good form of government.”
“Bhutto was strong,” said Neelum. “But Sadaf is right: Benazir and Nawaz Sharif were not strong.”
“They were corrupt people,” said Ayela Deen. “They just opened the loot and ran off.”
“I think there’s nothing black or white,” said Ayla Hassan. “I think there’s a grey area in which we all have to live. I don’t mind if the politicians are a little corrupt, as long as they do their duty.”
“I’m just astonished at his guts, the way he’s staying out in the open,” said Sadaf. “Nawaz Sharif would have gone underground.”
“Benazir used to wear a bulletproof jacket,” said Ayela Deen.
“Benazir knew that she was wrong, and she was a coward, basically,” said Zunera. “There’s no guilt in Musharraf’s heart.”
“The worst is that he’s a self-elected man,” said Ayela Deen. “And if he conked off, there are all these people who would say, ‘If he could be self-elected, why can’t we?’”
Like many members of Pakistan’s elite class, Ayela had met Musharraf personally. “At my cousin’s wedding, he walked in with his wife,” she told me. “He came over and he shook our hands, and he grabbed my cheek and he said, ‘You’re very cute.’ He has no arrogance attached to him. He’s open to any question you might ask him. My sister asked my uncle if she could ask him some questions. And he said, ‘No, he’s at my son’s wedding, and he doesn’t have time.’ And Musharraf spoke up and said, ‘No, let the lady speak. I have time.’ And they spoke for like forty-five minutes.”
In early January 2004, amid heavy security, a summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was held in Islamabad. The summit ended with a hopeful feeling that a Prague Spring was in the air between Pakistan and India. Direct air links had been renewed on January 1, and trains between Delhi and Lahore would start running again on January 15. People hoped that a military ruler and a Hindu-nationalist prime minister might achieve what more liberal leaders, obliged to protect their domestic flanks, could not. My students remembered the last SAARC summit, in Kathmandu in November 2002, when Musharraf had ostentatiously shaken hands with Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee. “It was a really long table,” said Ayla Hassan, “and Musharraf was at one end and Vajpayee was at the other. And Musharraf got up and walked all the way over to shake his hand.”
… [On February 4 or 5, 2004] Hassan’s father invited me into the TV room. “Come in,” he said. “We are watching his speech. He is saying that European countries are more involved with Pakistan.” Musharraf was on the screen, in a room full of reporters, wearing a camouflage uniform and a name tag that said Pervez. He was talking about [the nuclear scientist] A.Q. Khan.
“Is Pakistan important, or is the hero important?” he said in English. “Pakistan is important.” And, in Urdu: “I will never save the hero at the cost of Pakistan.”
A Reuters reporter asked whether he would allow UN inspectors into Pakistan.
“This is an independent nation,” said Musharraf. “Nobody comes inside and checks our things. We check them ourselves. There are Europeans involved. Have you gone and asked them that the same thing should be done there also?”
“The good thing about Ethan,” Hassan told his parents, “is that he’s against his own establishment.”
“Last two weeks there was a wedding,” said Hassan’s mother. “Qadeer Khan was there. I was so anxious to go and meet him.”
A.Q. Khan’s hero status meant that Musharraf had to handle the whole thing with great delicacy. “Qadeer Khan is a hero for the whole Muslim world,” Nusrat had told me. “Bush is blackmailing Musharraf.” My student Usman expressed widespread sentiments when he said: “Even if he smuggled the technology to Islamic countries, I don’t think it’s bad. Because Islamic world needs to be a bit more stronger.”
“Do you think this is a major crisis for Musharraf?” I asked Hassan.
“Oh yes,” he said. “He is the man of crisis.”
“Every year he has crisis,” his mother remarked cheerfully. “Two years before, Taliban crisis. Then last year, Iraq crisis. Now this Qadeer Khan crisis.”
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