Friday, August 22, 2008

Musharraf Finally Leaves - What Now for Pakistan?

From the Desk of Ibrahim Abdil-Mu’id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) Aug. 22, 2008 – Yielding to enormous pressure and the threat of impeachment from the national legislature, General Perez Musharraf has resigned as President of Pakistan. His departure from office was hailed by a wide spectrum of internal dissidents, from secular democratic forces to radical Islamists in Pakistan, the second most populous majority Muslim country on earth and a critical player in the intrigues of geopolitics. But where does this political change leave Pakistan, and what are the prospects for the future?

As an non-Pakistani Muslim, I'll hazard a guess: there is no certain future for Pakistan. But it seems that the future, whatever it will be, should be much brighter than the continuation of nine years of military and dictatorial rule that marked the leadership of General Musharraf.

Pakistan, like much of the Islamic political world, has been embroiled for decades in multiple violent conflicts and deep social and political division. To some extent, these realities both preceded the Musharraf presidency/dictatorship, and are likely to continue, in some form, now that he has surrendered the pinnacle of state power. But there are three salient factors that make Pakistan a special case.

The first, simply put, is that Pakistan is, in its national construction, a parliamentary democracy, with a clear separation of power (like the U.S.) between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Large areas of the country (like the Western territories on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border), have been under de facto tribal authority, and outside the orbit of the central government since the establishment of the state in 1947.

However, this constitutional rule of law, with the limits on executive authority, is something that General Musharraf blatantly dismissed since he came to power in the coup of 1999. The most powerful card in his political hand was never the legitimate authority of an election, but the authoritarian power of the Pakistani military that supported him.

The second reality that differentiates Pakistan from other nations is the context of events that followed the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

The Bush administration put enormous pressure on Musharraf to line up against armed Islamists in Pakistan, not only in the frontier provinces, but throughout civil society, including elements of the army and the security services.

The geopolitics of the U.S. "war on terror", and especially Pakistan's proximity with the war in Afghanistan, gave license for the U.S. to support the Musharraf dictatorship, even in the face of enormous civil society dissent and the heavy-handed overturning of constitutional law – as evidenced by Musharraf's sacking of Pakistan's Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudry, in 2007.

Throughout this chain of events, the Bush administration was willing to arm, finance, and politically support Musharraf (in a way similar to the support for Hosni Mubarak in Egypt), despite the clear will of a majority of Pakistanis that he needed to leave power.

The third, and perhaps most ominous reality is that, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan, or other majority-Muslim conflict areas, Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state. While Pakistan's arsenal is estimated to be less than 100 warheads (and smaller than that of regional rival India), the presence of these weapons of mass destruction in an area of intense geopolitical conflict, coupled with ongoing political instability and the power of armed groups in Pakistan that might be willing to use these weapons if they could get them, suggests that the future of Pakistan will be closely related to some stability within the state/military apparatus, and a real de-escalation of Pakistan's conflict with India.

It is not at all clear whether the coalition government led by Asif Ali Zardawi, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, will be able to form a government of national unity that can effectively control extremism and violence while bringing Islamic radicals into some form of detente with civil society.

Formidable ethnic and regional rivalries will remain, to be sure, regardless of the forces that rule the nation after the departure of former President Musharraf.

Whatever the political alignment, it is clear that the U.S. must reverse its support for an unpopular dictatorship, and come forward with massive, nonmilitary foreign assistance for the rebuilding of Pakistan's civil society and the eradication of the poverty and deprivation that are key ingredients supporting the extremism and are so prevalent in Pakistan. More affluent Muslim states should also lend a generous hand in providing the material underpinning for peace and social welfare in Pakistan.

I believe that the enormous energy and talent of the people of Pakistan, especially its youth, can help create the systemic changes that will support the prospects of real democracy and the evolution of a nonviolent, and tolerant, political culture.

While this possible post-Musharraf future is far from guaranteed, it is one that both the global Muslim community and the U.S government should be prepared to support.