Pakistan's Pinstripe Revolution

The first time I saw president Pervez Musharraf in person was in September 2000, about a year after he had assumed power in Pakistan, at a small gathering at New York's Council on Foreign Relations. It was the week of the United Nations General Assembly, and a galaxy of heads of state were in town. Immediately after Musharraf came Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. The two men couldn't have been more different. Musharraf delivered a scripted address while barely looking up from his text. He ticked off a series of substantive points, recited facts and statistics, and left abruptly once he was done. Chávez, on the other hand, was full of smiles and guffaws. He mingled before and after his talk, gave an off-the-cuff speech, spoke of his great love of America, its people, culture and baseball. He quoted Walt Whitman. When it was time to leave, he reluctantly walked away.

This difference might help explain the two leaders' divergent fates. Musharraf, for all his flaws, has been a far better president than Chávez—who despite Venezuela's oil bonanza has run the country into the ground. And yet Musharraf was never able to master the key skill you need to lead a nation—politics. He ruled his country in an aloof, controlled manner, never really embracing the hurly-burly of its politics and never finding a secure political path to maintaining his presidency. Convinced that he had rescued Pakistan from collapse, he was outraged that anyone might try to put obstacles in his way.

In a meeting with some 80 foreign envoys in Islamabad last Monday, Musharraf revealed the real reason for suddenly declaring a state of emergency on Nov. 3. Gone was the fiction that he was acting to save the country from the menace of terrorism. Speaking to the diplomats, he seemed to have one target in mind—the country's activist Supreme Court, which he blamed for aiding terrorists and targeting his presidency. "Ninety-six percent of what he said to the envoys was about how threatening the Supreme Court was to his political survival," says one Western diplomat in Islamabad, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

This is telling. From the start of his presidency Musharraf has had difficulties with the Supreme Court. On assuming office he ordered its justices to swear an oath that they would take no decisions against the military. Several refused and resigned. Even the ones that stayed did not prove as docile as he might have expected. The Court ordered him to hold elections by 2002 (which he did, although they were widely considered to be not entirely free and fair). This past March, Musharraf tried to fire the independent-minded chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, backing down only after mass protests. In the past two weeks, it was becoming apparent that the Court would rule that Musharraf was ineligible to be re-elected president for a second five year term in October while continuing to serve as the powerful Army chief.

Last September, in a predawn phone call, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had talked Musharraf out of declaring an emergency. But this time Musharraf listened to no one. He decided to act against the advice of his chief of staff, several cabinet ministers, the U.S. ambassador, and Adm. William Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command. He suspended the Constitution, placed dissenting judges under house arrest and ordered the detention of opposition politicians, human-rights activists and anyone who defied the ban on assemblies of more than five people. Musharraf's approval rating had already dwindled over the past year to around 20 percent. It is surely lower now.

It did not have to come to this for Musharraf. When he took office in 1999, Pakistan was in free-fall, economically bankrupt, politically isolated and in close alliance with the Taliban (and, by extension, Al Qaeda). He broke the country's fall and for many years, moved it toward moderation and modernity. He turned the country's strategic orientation away from the Taliban, revived the economy with real reforms, empowered women and spoke out against the pernicious influence of Islamic extremism. He opened up the media, allowing genuinely independent television channels (all of which were shut down last week), and tolerated considerable domestic criticism. He even inched closer to good relations with India, which might explain why the Indian government refused to criticize him last week.

On many of these issues, Musharraf's reforms were not as comprehensive as he claimed, nor was his break with the Taliban. But he did things that neither of his democratically elected predecessors—Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto—had dared to do. He reaped the rewards of his actions, gaining popular approval at home (for the first five years of his rule) as well as staunch international support, especially from the Bush administration. With the economy growing at a brisk 7 percent annually, most Pakistanis were content if not happy with his reign.

But Musharraf never tried to build a political base for his moderate approach and ally with other mainstream, secular parties, such as Sharif's Muslim League or Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. While these parties are feudal and often corrupt, they do represent the interests of many Pakistanis and have grassroots organizations that can mobilize people with considerable skill. Musharraf saw them as threats to his rule, and so he allied with whatever forces would bolster him instead, whether regional or religious in nature. His party was built on one man, nothing more, and developed no roots in the body politic. In a way, this reflected his own personality. Musharraf disdains politics. In 2004, when he was riding high in the polls, I asked him why he wouldn't run for the presidency in a direct election. "I am not a politician," he said. He never realized that to rule his country, he had to become one.

Can he last? Much depends on the Army, which remains the dominant force in Pakistani life. For now it seems to be behind him. "He has placed all the right people in the right positions," retired Pakistani Army Lt. Gen. Talat Masood says of the recent reshuffle of the Army's high command. "So they are unlikely to say no to him out of personal loyalties for now." But the emergency regulations and the widespread arrests of Supreme Court judges, lawyers, and civic and political activists are so unpopular that the strong public backlash is bound to influence the armed forces. "The Army reflects the opinion of society, so to think that the Army has a completely different opinion than the people on this would be wrong," says Masood.

It remains crucial to keep the Pakistani military completely involved and comfortable with the changes that are taking place. Like it or not, Pakistan's military runs the country. (Here is a lesson from Iraq: recognize and respect the sources of stability and order in a country, whether or not they conform to a textbook version of democracy.) And the Army believes, with some accuracy, that it has already been abandoned once by the United States and the West. After a four-decades-long alliance with America, after helping to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, Pakistan was "ditched" by Washington in 1989 (Musharraf's word). It had to deal with the aftermath of the anti-Soviet campaign—4 million Afghan refugees and a floundering economy—by itself. And after its 1998 nuclear tests, the United States sanctioned, fined and isolated Pakistan. Were such a break to take place a second time, it is unlikely that Washington would ever again be trusted by Pakistan's military establishment.

The best course for Pakistan would be for Musharraf to be forced to get back on the course he had outlined before imposing emergency rule—to hold elections soon and resign as Army chief of staff. Were he to do this quickly and end the emergency, he might be able to keep the presidency, though it will be a far weaker position than he might expect. Power in Pakistan lies in two places: constitutionally with the prime minister and operationally with the Army chief of staff. By the end of February next year, if the current plans stay intact, Musharraf will hold neither post. But if he were to stay on as a titular head of state, with some powers, that might be a workable compromise. Many commentators have made analogies to the Shah of Iran and Ferdinand Marcos. They do not really apply. Musharraf is unlikely to need to flee into exile; most Pakistanis seem to see him not as a monster but as a man who overstayed his welcome. There are those who hate him with a passion—Al Qaeda and the Taliban—but they are enemies of modern Pakistan itself.

Many observers are frightened by what is happening in Pakistan. The country is seen as a collapsed state, filled with jihadis, nukes and badlands. Chaos there can only be bad news. While there are reasons to be concerned, they can be exaggerated. The Pakistani military is a professional and disciplined organization with control over the nuclear program. And what is happening now could be seen as a sign of progress. The fact that the first crowds to take to the streets to protest emergency rule were pinstriped lawyers is a testament to the strength of civil society in Pakistan. After years of political calm and economic growth, the society has stabilized, and has developed an educated, Westernized middle class. Pakistanis' sense of the rule of law is growing. All of this makes arbitrary military rule harder to sustain. The difference between Musharraf and Hugo Chávez lies also in their respective countries. Pakistan had fallen on bad times in the 1990s, but it has serious traditions of law, human rights and democracy. In a strange sense, Musharraf's success in stabilizing the country has reignited those forces.

There is a tendency in the United States to see what is happening in Pakistan as a grand morality play: Musharraf is evil, the Army must return to its barracks, the politicians are angels. Or, for some people, the opposite is true. In fact, as in so many other places, Pakistani reality is awash in grays. The task for the United States and other friends of Pakistan is to guide it on a path that keeps the country stable and the jihadis at bay, pushes the political system toward greater legitimacy and openness, and keeps the key forces within the society working together. This means that the military and the major political parties must be drawn together to help govern the country. If they become unalterably opposed to one another, Pakistan will once again crumble.

Periods of transition are never placid. We now look at South Korea, Taiwan and Chile and applaud their shift toward greater democratic rule in the 1980s. But at the time the changes they underwent were messy. If Pakistan's transition is worked through carefully, keeping all mainstream forces in society invested in its future, the outcome could be greater stability and security. Badly managed, Pakistan will lapse once more into misrule, corruption and extremism. Either way, Pakistan eventually had to move back toward civilian rule, to return to politics. That time, whether Musharraf realizes it or not, is now.