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Emergency rule in Pakistan: Musharraf's last grab for power?

Citing terrorism and an 'activist' judiciary, the president says martial law will prevent the country from committing 'suicide.'

By Shahan MuftiCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor, Mark Sappenfield –Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 5, 2007


In a dramatic move that made explicit his desperation to preserve near-absolute power, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency Saturday, effectively eliminating the opposition that has built against him in recent months.

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In doing so, Mr. Musharraf introduced a new "provisional constitutional order" – a move many say looks more like martial law. Despite his assertions to the contrary, his decision has little to do with terrorism, analysts say, adding that his was a political calculation. With the Supreme Court threatening to declare his presidency illegal in a ruling this week, Musharraf struck preemptively against his foes.

Under the emergency order, he has sacked more than half of the Supreme Court, jailed up to 500 opposition party leaders, and shut down the independent media – assuming that the US has invested too much in him and the war on terror to withdraw its patronage. The order may also delay parliamentary elections, which had been scheduled to take place before Jan. 15.

It marks an important moment for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. As one of the last opposition figures who is not under arrest, she is uniquely situated to rally the masses against the president, says Hassan Askari Rizvi, an independent political scientist. Whether she does could determine how long Musharraf survives politically.

"Much depends on Bhutto," says Professor Rizvi. "If she decides to go to the streets, it can make an impact."

Over the long term, however, Musharraf's decision risks exposing his weaknesses further. During the five years since Pakistan's last elections, Musharraf has always had at least the appearance of a democratic government supporting him. Now, that has all but vanished, and if either Bhutto or the lawyers can mount significant public opposition to him, the Army might be left with no option but to dispense with one of their own – as they have done before.

Indeed, to many, the move seems an eerie echo of decades past, when Pakistan's three previous military rulers lost their legitimacy yet held desperately to the scraps of power. Eventually, the Army itself ousted some of them – fearing they had become a liability.

"The pattern is so similar," says Hassan Abbas, a Pakistan expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "It looks like the last efforts of a dictator who is out of touch with reality."

For now, however, there is little chance of America doing anything dramatic to undermine Musharraf's authority, he says. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called the order "highly regrettable" and she told reporters Sunday that the US will "review" the billions of dollars it gives Pakistan each year – much of it in military aid.

But a Defense Department official said Saturday that he expected no change in the Pentagon's relationship with Pakistan. It is an acknowledgment of what many analysts suggest Musharraf already knew: He is perceived to be too important an ally to antagonize – even with January's parliamentary elections hanging in the balance. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said Sunday that the elections could be delayed up to one year.

"The US is in a very awkward position," says Professor Abbas.

In his televised address to the nation Saturday night, Musharraf clearly sought to assuage the West's concerns – addressing Pakistanis as well as delivering an entire section of his speech in English for "friends in the West."

Describing a country that he said was becoming ungovernable under the present constitutional system, Musharraf claimed that an activist judiciary and a "negativist" independent media were creating an environment that was weakening the executive and law-enforcement authorities and creating an atmosphere that supported growing terrorism and extremism.