Crisis in Pakistan: A coup within a coup

Crisis in Pakistan: A coup within a coup November 5, 2007
Both the President & Chief of Staff agree

On November 3rd, President-General Pervez Musharraf declared an emergency in Pakistan, suspended the interim constitution and essentially placed the Supreme Court of Pakistan under military arrest. His move has generated a crisis in the region with serious global implications.

Pakistan to this day remains along with Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran and Bangladesh, one of the few Muslim states where democratic processes have taken roots over the years. Even when Pakistan is governed by military dictators, as it is frequently (1958-70, 1978-88, 1999-present), it is still able to sustain a free press, active political parties and independent judiciary. Its ability to retain liberal political institutions even under military dictatorship is an important characteristic that we must keep in mind as we watch the current spiraling sequence of political disasters in Pakistan.

Coup against liberalism

Some political theorists talk of “illiberal democracies” – polities where there are elections but often in the absence of other important democratic institutions such as free speech, free media and independent judiciary. Pakistan is, in a curious way, the opposite of an illiberal democracy. It is a liberal dictatorship.

The declaration of emergency by General-President Musharraf in Pakistan on November 3rd is essentially an attempt to pull a coup against an important liberal dimension of Pakistan – against the independent judiciary. In October General-President Musharraf won the presidential elections while holding on to the position of the Chief of Pakistani military. But according to the current Pakistani constitution, government employees cannot run for elections and therefore Musharraf cannot hold his position as the head of the military and still be eligible to run for political office. His election was challenged in the Supreme Court and right before the Court was to give its decision on the constitutionality of Musharraf’s election as President of Pakistan, he has declared an emergency, laid siege to the Supreme Court, blacked out independent news media and has detained those who had moved the Supreme Court to test his eligibility and the legality of his election.

This last year has seen Musharraf move against two institutions, the judiciary and the media, which otherwise have enjoyed much free reign under a dictatorship. These moves are clearly indications that Musharraf feels insecure about grip on power as his popularity declines.

Musharraf’s declining utility

In the last year, Musharraf’s popularity has diminished both in Washington and in Pakistan, primarily because he has become increasingly less useful both at home and abroad.

In Pakistan he has failed to curb the extremist violence which has taken over 450 lives in recent months. The military campaigns in the tribal areas against Taliban supporters and against the Red Mosque and its adjunct seminary in Islamabad has generated unprecedented amounts of resentment and anger against Musharraf. He is now seen by his critics primarily as a Washington tool who does nothing except to fight America’s war against terror, a war which most people in Pakistan view as a war against Islam. Musharraf is waging wars against his own people in cities and provinces, and that has made the citizenry as well the military nervous and unhappy.

Still, it’s important to note that Musharraf brought a degree of stability to Pakistani society and gave impetus to its declining economy after the coup in 1999. His alliance with the Bush administration after September 11 2001 also brought billions of dollars worth of military and economic aid to Pakistan, from which the economy has benefited. He has also provided, thanks to the professionalism of the military, both efficient and relatively corruption-free governance. Pakistan’s military is one of the few professional, competent and stable institutions in the country, and it essentially assumed the responsibilities of the state after 1999. With stability improving, the Pakistani population got used to positive changes and has forgotten the more blatant corruption and chaos under the previous democratic governments from 1988-1998. As a result, they are now are dissatisfied with the turmoil that Musharraf’s desperate efforts to retain power are bringing to Pakistan.

Even some of the secular elite who have supported Musharraf’s undemocratic ways are becoming wary of his high-handedness. They appreciated his enlightened approach to Islam and saw him as a force that while subverting democracy minimally (only at the top, since the rest of Pakistan’s governments, local and national, were elected), nurtured a degree of secularity and religious freedom necessary against the rising tide of Taliban-style Islamism. But what they have finally ended up with is more Islamic militancy with extremist violence, and less and less democracy.

American policy and democracy

Since September 11 2001, Pakistan essentially became the frontline state against al Qaeda and the Taliban and America’s major ally in the “war on terror”. Ironically, Musharraf’s coup in 1999 was described by many analysts as a coup against Washington, since the then-PM Nawaz Sharif was seen as too close to Washington and President Clinton. Until 2001, Musharraf was a persona non-grata in Western capitals, but he has since become the face of “enlightened Islam” and Muslim cooperation in America’s war against Islamic extremism.

Musharraf was seen as the go-to guy for eliminating al Qaeda from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and a bulwark against extremist control of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal. In return, America provided military and economic aid and did not pressure him to restore democracy in Pakistan. When two of the four provinces in Pakistan fell to Islamist-leaning parties in state assembly elections, the dangers of instant democracy became easily apparent to the US.

But lately there have been rumblings in Washington. General Musharraf has not fully succeeded in suppressing Islamic militancy. Al Qaeda (according to the National Intelligence Council) has reconstituted itself to pre-September 11 strength and the Taliban continue to wage their war against Western forces in Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan. Muslims of Pakistani origin are also seen as the main source for recruitment by radical groups in Britain. Pakistan has steadily become the most critical state for American and Western security and – given the fact that it is a nuclear-armed state – the strategic significance of a state failure or collapse in Pakistan is that much greater.

In recent weeks, Washington has been facilitating a rapprochement with Benazir Bhutto that could enable Musharraf to make a transition to democracy and remain President – with Bhutto as Prime Minister – and sustain a secular alliance in power in Islamabad. The declaration of emergency by Musharraf is his second coup against Washington. It not only derails the latest effort to usher in democracy but also emboldens the Islamist opposition, who recognizes that by taking this aggressive step, the General himself has brought Pakistan to the tipping point. It remains to be seen if they can muster the capacity to go the distance.

Washington cannot and will not abandon Musharraf. Indeed his move, which brings Pakistan closer to collapse, basically forces Washington to stand behind him more firmly, albeit unhappily. In the end, the current crisis can be diffused if an early rapprochement between Musharraf and the Pakistani Supreme Court can be arranged. It is here that Benazir Bhutto can play a role and reestablish herself as a major player both at home and in the eyes of the US.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic studies and Associate Professor at the University of Delaware. He is a nonresident fellow of the Brookings Institution and a fellow of the Al Waleed Center at Georgetown University. His website is

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