Pakistan's 'warm fuzzy' ruler: He'll even shed tears in public

Since his Oct. 17 speech, Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf has worked to polish

Weeping is not something that army chiefs are known for. Especially if they have just led a coup. But as Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf taped his historic speech to the Pakistani nation on Sunday night, witnesses say he broke down twice during a closing prayer he wrote for the event. It begins, "Give me the vision to see and perceive the true from the false."

Now, as troubled Pakistan embarks on its most extensive reforms in decades - forcing powerful industrialists and politicians to pay back taxes, curbing Islamist zealots on the streets and in the military, trying to negotiate a Western-powers agenda that is not at all popular here - General Musharraf may have to repeat his prayer often.

For Pakistan, which has moved from being a moderate and stable front-line state during the cold war, to being viewed as a destabilizing exporter of terrorism and drugs, the next two weeks are as important as any in its history. As Musharraf decides on the makeup of a new national security council that will attempt major structural changes, the new leader, who was born in India, seems to feel a sense of destiny, say his friends.

To the world, the new chief executive of the world's newest nuclear power was at first an enigma. The man who led a 10-week military offensive in Kashmir this spring appeared in file TV clips after last week's coup wearing combat fatigues, waving a gun, and looking a bit like a banana republic dictator.

Initial appearances may have been deceiving. His friends describe Musharraf as a liberal in a conservative army who advanced by his intelligence, courage, and independence. In meetings with often surprised senior diplomats here, Musharraf has been described as "broad-minded," "serious," "moderate," and "a patriot."

The general has said one of his heroes is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey - the secular Muslim country where a young Musharraf went to high school when his diplomat-father was posted there. Musharraf told Turkish reporters this week that Turkey was the country he wants to visit first as a new head of state. Arms-supplier China was his first destination after he became army chief last year.

On the heels of a coup that ousted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistani spin doctors are trying to present their new leader as a model citizen. The stress on Turkey, a NATO member, is bound to ease some apprehensions of the West.

Musharraf is an avid bridge and squash player. He occasionally takes a drink in this Muslim country, turns heads by going out on the town with friends even after having become army chief, and he has relatives who live in the United States.

Yet in a country where cynicism about double-dipping leaders is pervasive, Musharraf seems to have given the country a new lease on life. He hopes to encourage a largely silent middle class to support him and begin to support long neglected Pakistani institutions. Musharraf even took the unusual step during his speech of offering to reveal his tax records - in a country where only 1 in 100 persons pays tax, a shocking symbol of honesty. "Musharraf is straight and honest, a good man," says Hamid, a taxi driver. "Such a man is what we need."

The current elation among Pakistanis at the ouster of Mr. Sharif will be an important element in providing the "right spirit" needed to bring about proper financial practices and eliminate kickbacks and patronage, says Sakib Sherani, the assistant vice president of ABN-AMRO bank in Islamabad. Public opinion and the friends Musharraf makes by going after corruption will be key ingredients in offsetting the many enemies he is bound to make. "Without a groundswell of support, change is impossible in Pakistan," says Mr. Sherani.

"I would call Musharraf a progressive," says Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a retired officer. "He believes in equality of education among boys and girls. His daughter is an architect married to another architect, and the marriage was not arranged."

Perhaps the biggest change from past coups and political changeovers in previous years is that Musharraf did not plan or scheme to become the head of Pakistan, sources say. Indeed, as the coup proceeded after Sharif tried to replace Musharraf as army chief while he was en route from Sri Lanka to Pakistan last week, Musharraf did not know until just before his plane landed in Karachi that a coup was under way. He has also allowed the press to say what it will. "The most unreal part ... is the army has not intruded on civilian life," says Umer Farooq, the local reporter for Jane's Defence Weekly. "All of our previous coups were Draconian and tried to control every aspect of life. Musharraf has been something different."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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