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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"I cannot allow the country to commit suicide," the president told viewers.

There is little evidence, though, that the order has any real relation to terrorism, say experts and security analysts. The extremists in Pakistan's border regions are not a threat to the solvency of the state, nor is emergency rule likely to change the Army's fortunes in fighting them.

"Martial law does not add to his strength in terms of the forces on the ground," says Shafqat Mahmood, a columnist for the newspaper The News. "All this does is remove his concerns about the Supreme Court."

Most analysts agree that the timing of the order was probably linked to the Supreme Court, which was set to decide this week whether Musharraf's reelection as president in October was illegal. Opponents argued that his dual post of president and Army chief was unconstitutional.

"He could have done this exact same maneuver even after the Supreme Court had ruled against him," says Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "But it might have been a shade more obvious why it was done."

In declaring a state of emergency, Musharraf has cleared the court of those most likely to oppose him, including the independent-minded chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, whom he had also tried to oust in March, unsuccessfully.

When Musharraf previously attempted to remove Mr. Chaudhry, lawyers led nationwide protests with political parties and civil society groups, eventually forcing Musharraf to relent. But it is uncertain whether lawyers will be able to mount a similar campaign now that the Constitution has been suspended and all the lawyers' leaders jailed.

"I cannot see the movement as it was previously," says Asma Jehangir, a Musharraf critic and lawyer, who says she is now under house arrest. "People have to be led" and there is no leadership left.

In the end, though, the final word will almost certainly lie with the Army, says Rizvi.

"That is the only institution that can take him out or put him in power," he says.

The Pakistani Army is loath to break ranks and overthrow its own chief. As in the past, it would be likely only do so if the opposition could create a mass movement against Musharraf that the Army's top brass could not ignore.

Says Rizvi: "The military has never supported a discredited regime."

On Saturday night, news of the order brought only confusion – partially because all the independent television news stations had been taken off the air.

Hassan Iqbal, an employee at a music store in Islamabad's central market, joked that it was probably the first time since the shop opened five years ago that he had watched the state-run channels.

"This place was packed a few hours ago," he said on Sunday. "Uncertainty scares us all – maybe even more than bombs."

If Musharraf has succeeded in sidelining the lawyers' movement, that leaves the field to Pakistan's political opposition, some of which was spared in the purge.

Some see a conspiracy in the fact that Bhutto returned from visiting her family in Dubai without any government harassment after the state of emergency had been called.

"It can't be without some sort of arrangement" with Musharraf, suggests Mr. Mahmood, the columnist.

Others, however, see this as an opportunity for Pakistan's chronically splintered opposition to forge a more united and mobilized front – lawyers, judges, and political parties.

"The opposition has always been more constrained by its own weaknesses and their own deals undermining one another," says Bilal Mehmood, chairman of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.

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