Musharraf solidifies powerful post

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf explained to his country Thursday why he won't quit his position as military chief, reneging on a long-standing promise, and securing maximum power to fulfill his transformation of the country to a modern, secular state.

In an uncompromising televised address, Mr. Musharraf said he would continue as army chief of staff, claiming it had been mandated by Parliament.

"I have decided to retain both offices. In my view, any change in internal or external policies can be extremely dangerous for Pakistan," he said.

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Some observers say that Musharraf is following the example of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. In the 1920s and 1930s, Mr. Ataturk used sweeping, radical measures to usher Turkey - like Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim country - into the modern era.

But unlike Ataturk, Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, is struggling to create fundamental changes in Pakistani society while equalizing the pressures imposed by the war on terror. Washington counts Musharraf as a key antiterror ally - and expects him to toe the line. At home, Musharraf's policies have drawn ire from the religious right, who dub him a traitor for wanting to change the Islamic Republic of Pakistan into a secular state. Liberal critics, meanwhile, criticize his authoritarian powers.

"[Musharraf] wants to change Pakistani society by liberal, moderate and progressive policies," says Sheikh Rashid, a Musharraf spokesman. "We are faced with difficult circumstances and that is why Musharraf does not want to take off his military uniform."

After getting elected - with no real competition - as president through a referendum in 2002, Musharraf introduced controversial constitutional amendments that secured his rights to sack the prime minister and cabinet.

His rival political alliance of extremist parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), supported the general's amendment package which legitimized his 1999 coup on the condition that he quit the post of army chief at the end of 2004.

But two months ago, when Musharraf hinted that he may not honor his promise, the religious alliance cried foul and launched a country-wide protest campaign in December.

"General Musharraf is acting like a viceroy and agent of the United States and wants to seize our freedom and identity as a sovereign state," Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of the religious alliance, told protesters at a rally in December.

"The MMA will continue opposing Musharraf's pro-America policies and the agenda of world powers aimed at making Pakistan a secular state," he says.

Though Musharraf rose from Islamist and conservative ranks within the country's powerful military and is seen as the general who derailed democratic progress, he projects an image of being a liberal reformist. Indeed, his liberal views have often provoked religious extremists. Just after coming to power, he and his wife angered Pakistan's mullahs by posing with dogs, animals considered unclean in the Islamic tradition.

Musharraf has pushed aggressive economic growth programs with the help of his hand-picked prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, a smooth-talking economic guru. The economic policies are friendly to foreign and local investment, but unemployment remains close to 9 percent. More than 30 percent of Pakistan's 140 million people live below the poverty line.

His government relaxed the state-owned media policy, allowing the creation of private and independent TV news and hard-hitting current-affairs programs. Entertainment and fashion programs can now be seen on TV; in the recent past, even sleeveless dress or showing of hair of female artists was censored.

Some of Musharraf's reforms are a direct affront to the religious right.

The government recently announced that new passports will no longer identify an individual's religion. That policy had been set by late military dictator General Zia-ul Haq during his policy of Islamization.

More significantly, the government has recently passed a bill to curb the centuries-old ritual of killing a woman on the mere suspicion that she had an illegitimate relationship for the sake of "honor." The tradition is known as "honor killings." Women's rights activists praise the effort to crack down on honor killings, but say it falls far short.

And Islamabad is now trying to reform the syllabi of madrassahs - some of which are accused of promoting religious hatred and terrorism.

"After the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the society has further polarized and Musharraf lacks long term policies and strategies to liberalize it," says Professor Khalida Ghaus, head of International Affairs at Karachi University.

"To fulfill his political and social agenda he should device a strong political system rather than vesting absolute powers in one person," says retired General Talat Masood, an analyst in Islamabad.

"He has emerged as powerful and in the saddle. The international community is happy for his role in the war on terror and the religious extremists are not strong enough to topple him," says Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times.

Liberal observers say he needs to come down harder on religious forces. "He is better than political leaders as he is not corrupt," says student Haris Anjum. "If he goes, mullahs can make our lives miserable. Musharraf, like Ataturk, cannot ban Islamic dress and codes but he can deal with them better than anybody else."

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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