Planning for a Musharraf in civilian garb

If he steps down as Army chief, Musharraf may find himself newly vulnerable to a hostile civilian politics.

A newly appointed panel of Supreme Court judges, handpicked by President Pervez Musharraf, is scheduled to throw out the last of the legal challenges to his continued rule Thursday.

The rulings would clear the way for the general to quit the Army and take an oath as a civilian president of Pakistan – as he has publicly pledged he would – for another five-year term.

If he follows the script, President Musharraf will become the first military ruler in Pakistan to quit the Army to become a civilian leader – in itself a testament to the extraordinary challenges the ruler has faced of late.

But it is a move inherently laden with risk and uncertainty. There is no historic precedent to suggest how civil, political, and military forces will react to Musharraf's new placement in the power landscape.

"He thinks he has created a structure in the military and engineered his political party so that both will support him in the future," says Talat Masood, an independent analyst and retired Army general. But there is a "big question mark," he says, over how military and civilian politics will interact with each other, with a civilian Musharraf as a buffer between the two.

While his quitting the Army may placate much of his political opposition, observers say, some others, including an agitated street movement, may remain adamant about seeing the general off permanently. But once he is a step removed from the Army, Musharraf might find himself newly vulnerable in the ring of civilian politics.

Musharraf's decision to quit the Army comes after a year in which the military uniform has become a great liability for the ruler as well as the Army he leads. After the declaration of emergency earlier this month, which effectively brought the country under martial law, Western powers led by the US also decided the general must quit the Army.

"Now the Army needs an interlocutor between the institution and the outside world – the civil politics and international community," say Ejaz Haider, a newspaper editor and former fellow at the Brookings Institution, who focused on the civil-military dynamic in Pakistan. "And they may have decided that Musharraf is the man for the job."

A choice for Musharraf's opposition

The legal hurdles to Musharraf's presidency, which the Supreme Court is now removing, were introduced when a more independent and activist Supreme Court was in place, empowered by popular anti-Musharraf sentiment, and apparently immune to pressures from the executive. Many suspected the court was poised to throw out the Army chief in an unprecedented display of its institutional power, which could have fundamentally altered the historically skewed civil-military power equation.

But now, with the courts neutralized and an election planned for Jan. 8, opposition parties are faced with a choice. They could try to secure whatever gains they have made, participate in the elections, and move forward into a new set-up of, at least on paper, civilian rule. But they could also boycott elections completely and continue in the streets with their fight against Musharraf.

"The opposition," says Mr. Haider, "had been following the public sentiment, which was uncompromising after March," when the street movement against Musharraf began. But now, Musharraf seems to be calculating that a draw of a share in the power in the elections will entice some reconsider their positions.

The president was in Saudi Arabia this week to renew contacts with former Prime Minsiter Nawaz Sharif, who lives in exile there. Mr. Sharif, a political heavyweight, has thus far refused to negotiate politically with Musharraf.

Meanwhile, at least one major opposition party, the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, has stated it will not boycott the polls. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party has announced it will make a decision on the elections this week.

Planning for a non-political Army

Musharraf, some say, is supremely confident of his clout in the Army even after his retirement.

"It might well be true," an editorial in Pakistan's leading weekly news magazine said, "that General Musharraf is so comfortable with the corps commander and they with him that they jointly do not countenance any reduction in his clout even after he quits as Army chief."

Others like Mr. Masood believe "the Army will be more interested in military matters" now that they are free to disengage from the heavy political baggage accumulated during Musharraf's eight-year rule. A "depoliticized Army," some say, is best suited to act against the growing internal threat from Taliban-inspired militants.

It is accepted that the Army has always controlled civilian politics in full view or behind the scenes in Pakistan, and many had hoped that the mobilization against Army rule would have borne a cure for the civil-military dynamic, which has always favored the Army.

Civil society, including journalists, rights groups, and students, are experiencing a momentum for civilian democracy not seen in decades despite wavering political support.

Pakistan, says Masood, is still in the thick of the historic moment where its civil military power dynamic may be altered. "Whether it will be revolutionary or evolutionary is still a question."

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