Benazir and the General

Never before has a military-backed government found it necessary to initiate its own military coup

My friend Asma Jahangir, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was among the first to bear the brunt of General Musharraf's crackdown. Within minutes after the "emergency" was declared on 3 November, she was put under house arrest for 90 days. Later, she was transferred to Court Lakpath jail. Arrests of thousands of lawyers, judges and human rights activists followed - many were dragged from their homes and brutally beaten before being thrown into prison.

Pakistan is used to military coups. But never before has a military-backed government found it necessary to initiate its own military coup. The official reason for Musharraf's dastardly actions is the exponential rise of extremism and terrorism. But it is clear that the martial law has nothing to do with terrorism.

It is an act of terror against civic society and its institutions. The constitution has been suspended, human rights have been declared irrelevant, free speech forbidden, private television stations closed, offices of major newspapers raided, free assembly outlawed and the entire country has been shrouded in darkness.

While the Pakistani army is being thrashed by militant insurgents sympathetic to the Taliban, the military is pouncing on unarmed journalists, members of the judiciary, leaders and workers of opposition parties, and anyone who dares to criticise the General.

Among those arrested is the brilliant and courageous lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, the newly elected president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, who has played a key role in lawyers' agitation. He was sent to the Adiala jail, where he may be tortured. Imran Khan, the former cricketer and the leader of the Justice Party, was put under house arrest but escaped and is now on the run. The Pakistan Muslim League, the party of the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, claims that 1,200 of its national and district leaders have been arrested. Most of the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the right-wing religious party, are under house arrests or in prison, too.

The tipping point for Musharraf came when it became evident that the Supreme Court was likely to rule against the notion that a man in military uniform can be elected as president of Pakistan. In his address to the nation, in which he compared himself to Abraham Lincoln, Musharraf clearly stated that he wants a compliant judiciary. The executive, legislature and the judiciary must be "in harmony", he said. Since he controls both the executive and the legislature, this amounts to a declaration that the General must have absolute power.

The most disturbing element of the crackdown is the role played by the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. She sees her route back to power via accommodation with Musharraf, which has not endeared her to those now leading the resistance against him.

Bhutto was informed that the emergency was on its way and left the country - only to return. She is the only politician to move freely around Pakistan; and her party has largely been spared the military's wrath. While she has criticised martial law, her protests against the General have been muted.

Supreme Court judges, such as Wajihuddin Ahmed, have claimed she is colluding with Musharraf, who issued a special ordinance to get her off corruption charges. Musharraf now wants Bhutto to lead a caretaker government. But she is holding out for a minimum two-year period as prime minister. The more desperate she seems for power the less likely she is to be a viable fig leaf for an interim administration.

It seems probable that popular unrest will swell into open revolt, generating new alignments. Grand coalitions of liberal secular and religious parties might materialise much as they did in Iran prior to the overthrow of the Shah. Pakistan's religious parties have never been significant electoral players. But they can become a potent force in a broad coalition against Musharraf and the army.

There is unrest in the army, too. Gorged on foreign financing, it is riven by factions. The disintegration of the army is even more likely if its power and privileges appear to be threatened by the increasing strength of civil society. Musharraf has already had to deny reports that elements within the army have moved against him, holding him temporarily under house arrest. But today's rumours can become tomorrow's reality. The General would not be the first Pakistani military leader to be eliminated by elements within the army who have concluded that he has outlived his usefulness.

Having invested so much in Musharraf, more than $10bn at the rate of some $130m a month since 9/11, the US is now caught in the worst of all possible conundrums. Far from being "strong for freedom", as President Bush described him during their joint press conference at the White House last year, Musharraf is the great impediment in the way of the real forces of democracy that have languished within Pakistani society for decades. Bush's ambiguous response to the emergency seems to imply that Musharraf can remain in power if he restores the constitution and takes off his uniform. But this is likely to further polarise popular opinion in Pakistan against both Musharraf and America.

The General has unleashed an avalanche. Avalanches, once the ground begins to move, are impossible to control and highly destructive. It is not easy to predict where and how the dust will settle. But we can be sure that the increasingly demented Musharraf will not give up power easily - he will have to be dragged screaming and fighting from the throne.