Pakistan: Bhutto Fights Back

Whether Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf can successfully maintain the emergency rule he imposed last weekend largely depends on Benazir Bhutto. With her well-organized, grass-roots Pakistan People's Party firmly behind her, she is the only opposition political leader who has the potential clout to stand up to the four-star army general. But until Wednesday it seemed unlikely she would challenge him. In light of her return from exile less than one month ago on the back of a sweetheart political deal she had struck with the president, few Pakistanis expected her to jeopardize that arrangement, which granted her amnesty from a host of corruption charges, by taking a firm stand. While she denounced the emergency when it was announced, most people expected her to meet with the president this week in the capital in an effort to convince him to soften his stand.

They were dead wrong. To almost everyone's surprise, and certainly to Musharraf's, she threw down the gauntlet, issuing a set of hard-line nonnegotiable demands that were effectively a declaration of war if he didn't comply. At a packed press conference at her modest party headquarters in the capital she gave him until Nov. 15, the end of his current presidential term, to lift the emergency, restore the constitution, resign from the army, release the several thousand people detained so far, lift the newly imposed media bans, and firmly set Jan. 15 as the last day to hold free and fair general elections. Otherwise, she said, she was going to the streets. Bhutto said she would lead a 220-mile "long march" from Lahore to Islamabad on Nov. 13 if Musharraf didn't cave in. For starters, she called for an antigovernment rally that she would attend this Friday. "I appeal to the people of Pakistan to come forward," she said wearing a white headscarf and a black dress embroidered with sequins. "We are under attack."

Bhutto said she was making these demands "to save the country." The danger came largely from Musharraf's authoritarian ways, she said, adding that she had negotiated in good faith with Musharraf for a return to democracy but had been betrayed. "We find ourselves back in a dictatorship that is breeding extremism," she said. "The country is endangered by extremism." She charged that "an organized minority had seized control of the levers of the state," including officials who had connections to extremists going way back to the Afghan mujahedin war against the Soviets, which boosted such radicals as Osama bin Laden. These unnamed men in the government and the intelligence agencies, she went on, were behind the assassination attempt against her last month, when her motorcade was hit by a huge explosion as it was traveling through a sea of supporters on the day she arrived from eight years in exile, killing some 190.

Despite the dangers, she said she was determined to lead the anti-emergency rally next Friday in the army garrison city of Rawalpindi, even though the local authorities have not authorized the demonstration and even if she risked being arrested or worse. "I understand my liberty may be at stake," she said, "but my country is more important." The stakes in nuclear-armed Pakistan, she added, were much higher. "Imagine if a nuclear-armed country implodes?" she asked.  

She also pointedly accused the government of not seriously investigating the assassination attempt against her. "I know more about what happened in that bomb blast than they do," she said, referring to the government. She claimed that her own investigators had found that the bomb that was aimed at killing her was not carried by a willing suicide bomber, but was a baby that had been wired with explosives. Someone in the crowd was trying to hand the baby onto the truck she was traveling in when it exploded, she said. The government counters that a lone suicide bomber, probably from the lawless tribal area, caused the carnage.

She also appealed to the armed forces that at least until now have staunchly backed its chief of army staff, Gen. Musharraf, and his crackdown. She said the unity of Pakistan was at stake and so was that of the military as a result of the extremism that his rule had created and failed to contain in the frontier areas bordering on Afghanistan where Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistani tribal militants enjoy a safe haven. Democracy, not more authoritarianism, was the answer, she said.

Bhutto emphasized that she and her party are tired of negotiating with Musharraf and his men. After months of secret talks this year, she and Musharraf seemed to be heading for an eventual deal: he remaining president, she becoming prime minister. Their pact, which was sealed just before she returned last month, granted her amnesty from a host of serious corruption charges and allowed her to return scot-free from her self-imposed exile. In return she agreed not to try to scupper his presidential re-election bid last month, in which he won a new five-year term in an indirect election that was contested in the Supreme Court. When Bhutto returned from eight years in exile last month it appeared that their political agreement would stand and even be strengthened. But their newfound cooperation was temporarily derailed by the horrendous suicide attack. It was shattered when Musharraf suddenly imposed his draconian, martial-law-like emergency. As a result any trust there may have been between the two sides has been lost. "They cheated and lied to gain time and to divide the opposition," says Shah Mohammad Qureshi, a PPP leader. "We are left with no choice but to mobilize people against the dictatorship."

Whether the PPP has the forces to challenge the government on the streets is unclear, though Bhutto is believed to have the ability to mobilize tens of thousands. So far most of the protests have been carried out by a phalanx of lawyers who have braved police rattan charges and tear gas and mass arrests. Several mainstream political leaders are either in jail, under house arrest, or have gone underground, like cricket icon turned politician Imran Khan, who said in a short video message today, "If we don't resist, it will take Pakistan on the path of destruction." Energized by Bhutto's press conference today, several dozen PPP members of parliament and activists tried to march toward the presidential palace but were met by a line of police and coils of barbed wire. The protesters were quickly dispersed by charging cops firing tear gas. But it was important because it was the first foray of the PPP into the streets. Until today Bhutto's forces had largely watched as others led the protests. For the first time today, several hundred students joined anti-emergency rallies. Hundreds of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) students gathered Wednesday afternoon in a protest that passed without violence, beyond a few students hurling stones at police vehicles.

Until Wednesday the PPP has managed to stay on the right side of Musharraf. But Bhutto claimed that 400 PPP activists had been arrested Wednesday in protests as the crackdown on civil and judicial rights activists continued. While other opposition politicians are either in detention or, like Khan, have been forced into hiding, Bhutto breezed into Islamabad on Tuesday evening amid tight security and amid rumors that she was hoping to get some face time with Musharraf. Bhutto strongly denies this. The meeting did not take place, and both sides seem now to be careering toward a showdown.

Official government sources told NEWSWEEK on condition of anonymity that the meeting between Musharraf and Bhutto could not take place because of Musharraf's "prior engagements." Both leaders did speak on the phone last night, the sources said. The conversation did not seem to have satisfied either Musharraf or Bhutto.
In an op-ed in The New York Times on Wednesday, Bhutto wrote that democratic forces can either "acquiesce to the brutality of the dictatorship or take over the streets and show the world where the people of Pakistan really stand." But despite her tough talk there may be room for compromise, though Bhutto seemed to reject that approach Wednesday. "[Musharraf] clearly wants her to keep her loyal supporters out of the streets, as she did over the summer [when the lawyers were up in arms over the chief justice's sacking]," says Syed Mansoor Hussain, a columnist for Pakistan's Daily Times. "She wants him to bring to a complete end the corruption cases against her abroad."

"But Bhutto would be greatly out of sync with public sentiment," he added, "if she does not forcefully confront Musharraf on the sacking of the country's senior-most judges." To get a sense of Bhutto's intentions, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson met with Bhutto Wednesday night.

Perhaps belatedly aware that Bhutto may now have to go against him, and of the wide public resentment against his extraconstitutional step on Nov. 3, Musharraf has recommitted publicly to holding elections on schedule by Jan. 15. He has released the 70 activists of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan arrested on Sunday afternoon at their office, and allowed at least two private news channels back on the air, CNBC and Indus News, which is owned by his son's father-in-law. And his deputy information minister, Tariq Azim Khan, said Wednesday that Musharraf would keep the emergency "very short." But that may be too little too late to satisfy Bhutto, who seems determined to push the issue into the streets. Having gone so far in her statements Wednesday, it will be difficult for her to back down without seriously damaging her credibility and popularity.