Gen. Pervez Musharraf cut a solitary figure on Pakistan's state-run television shortly before midnight Saturday in somber, traditional civilian clothes to explain why he suspended the constitution, placed several Supreme Court judges under house arrest, detained a number of opposition lawyers, took private cable news channels off-air, and plunged an already restive country into a fresh and perhaps intractable crisis.
Earlier during the day, news channels reported the unusual movement of police and paramilitary troops in and around Islamabad and of senior government and military officials near the Aiwan-e-Sadar, the official residence of Pakistan's president. Then sometime around 5 p.m., the news channels went black. Islamabad's Constitution Avenue, the broad boulevard running past the buildings which house the presidency, parliament and the Supreme Court, was cordoned off by police. As of late Saturday, there was no visible army presence in the streets of Pakistan's capital and there were no reports of unrest. Official sources, requesting anonymity, say there are no plans to deploy the army.
"I have taken this difficult decision to dispel the impression that the government is paralyzed," Musharraf said in the pre-recorded speech. "Government officials have been paraded in and out of the courts," he said, adding that the higher judiciary's "hyper-activism" had weakened the writ of the state and undermined its efforts in the war against terrorism and extremism. "After all that we have achieved in the last eight years, Pakistan is on a downward trajectory and inaction now would be suicide for Pakistan," he said in English. To Western allies, he added, "You cannot expect or demand from us the level of democracy you have earned over centuries of struggle."
Voices in and outside of Pakistan were not convinced and condemned Musharraf's proclamation of emergency. Returning late Saturday from Dubai, Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who last month ended over eight years of self-exile following negotiations with Musharraf, called for the immediate restoration of the constitution at a hurriedly organized press conference in Karachi. "This is not an emergency, this is martial law imposed by the army chief," she said, referring to Musharraf's controversial dual role. "This has been done to put off elections."
Musharraf's latest move comes despite strong advice to the contrary from key allies, the United States and Britain, and on the very day that the Supreme Court was rushing to rule on his eligibility to hold the country's highest office. Musharraf precipitated a political crisis last March, and lost much of his popularity, when he tried to sack Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
Chaudhry was reinstated by the Supreme Court on the back of an unprecedented popular movement led by Pakistan's lawyers. Official sources say that Chaudhry is among the judges who were taken into "protective custody" from court premises on Saturday. Aitzaz Ahsan, a prominent lawmaker who led the movement to reinstate the chief justice, was arrested from his Islamabad home on Saturday. Ahsan's wife Bushra tells NEWSWEEK from Lahore that the Supreme Court had not only voided Musharraf's eligibility for holding the office of president but that just moments before his detention, Chaudhry had "ruled that all Pakistanis must reject and resist the orders of an illegal president, an illegal prime minister and an illegal government."
Musharraf moved quickly to choose a replacement for Chaudhry. State-run television, PTV, flashed pictures of a new chief justice being sworn in by the president, but dozens of the country's top judges have refused to swear allegiance to the government under the president's new provisional constitutional order. The federal and provincial governments and assemblies remain intact and are expected to continue in office until their terms expire on Nov. 15--when Musharraf's present five-year term also ends. Before he declared the emergency Musharraf had promised to resign from his powerful position as the chief of army staff before taking the oath of office to another presidential term. In his televised speech, he did not reaffirm that commitment.
Speculation that the president would impose martial law had been making the rounds since the court resumed hearings in the Musharraf case earlier this month. Both the attorney general and senior cabinet ministers had denied the possibility, but senior army generals and Musharraf's closest political aides were said to have favored this drastic move. Those rumors led to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice having privately counseled Musharraf against imposing emergency rule. So did U.S. Naval Admiral William J. Fallon, who met with Musharraf in Islamabad on Friday to discuss a range of issues including the spate of anti-government violence in the tribal area, which is now spilling over into Pakistan's towns and cities. On Saturday, Rice called Pakistan's moves "highly regrettable." Diplomatic sources in Islamabad tell NEWSWEEK that the imposition of martial law could imperil substantial military and foreign aid, and cripple the Pakistani economy.
Syed Mansoor Hussain, a columnist for Pakistan's Daily Times, tells NEWSWEEK that the declaration of an emergency was inevitable as the courts had made several recent judgments against the government. It had ordered the release of detainees who were being held without charge, sometimes in detention centers being run by the country's intelligence services. Late last month it also ordered that exiled, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif be allowed to return to Pakistan as soon as possible. Sharif, who attempted to return under a previous and similar court order last September, was summarily deported to Saudi Arabia as soon as he touched down in Islamabad. "It was becoming obviously embarrassing for the elected government to be reprimanded and reproached by the higher judiciary," Hussain says.
The government says that the emergency order is a necessary response to a "visible ascendancy in the activities of extremists and incidents of terrorist attacks" and the judiciary's "constant interference in executive functions including … control of terrorist activity." The order states that "hardcore militants, extremists, terrorists and suicide bombers, who were ordered to be released [by the court were] … involved in heinous terrorist activities, resulting in loss of human life and property."
Official sources tell NEWSWEEK that the Nov. 1 suicide attack on a military bus that killed eight Air Force officers in Sargodha was carried out by one of 61 men recently released on the orders of the court. They also say that the court's decision to hand over Islamabad's Red Mosque to the surviving radical clerics who had previously run it was a "severe blow" to the anti-terrorism efforts. "The Supreme Court was acting as a pro-Islamist body," says Hussain. "The only way out of the confrontation between the judiciary and the government was apparently through force or extra-constitutional measures."
Khawaja M. Asif, an opposition lawmaker, spoke to NEWSWEEK on Saturday from house arrest in Sialkot. "This is not an emergency, it is martial law and it is a shameful and desperate move," he said. Musharraf has previously been able to escape public furor. But if his attempted sacking of the chief justice showed anything, it is that Pakistan's people are now prepared to take their protests to the streets. The result is unlikely to be good for either Pakistan or its fight against terrorism.