Dictators: Islam's man of action

Ziauddin Sardar on Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan

President Pervez Musharraf does not see himself as a dictator. On the contrary, he projects himself as a modern, tolerant, enlightened man tirelessly working to restore democracy to Pakistan. This country needs my leadership, he has declared on numerous occasions.

Musharraf came to power in 1999 after ousting the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif. Sharif had brought the country to its knees: corruption was endemic, ethnic warfare was tearing Pakistan apart, the economy was near collapse. The army had to take over, Musharraf told the country, "as a last resort to prevent any further destabilisation". Since then, he has ruled Pakistan with as much cunning as brute power.

Musharraf is the third of the great military dictators who have ruled Pakistan, on and off, for more than 30 years. Like his predecessor, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, he is a shrewd operator, skilful at manipulating his political opponents, congenial, is fond of lecturing his nation, and has a short fuse. Like Ayyub Khan, the first military dictator of Pakistan, he believes in "guided democracy", a historically established euphemism for army rule.

After coming to power, Musharraf began implementing an elaborate plan to introduce grassroots democracy. He established regional and city assemblies, promoted the participation of women and peasants, and held elections. He went on to introduce parliamentary democracy and set up a National Assembly. But all this was done, in the true Pakistani military tradition, after he had introduced a few notable constitut ional changes. Musharraf's constitutional amend ments, the Legal Framework Order (LFO), give him the power to sack prime ministers, dissolve parliaments and make him both head of the army and head of state.Not surprisingly, the National Assembly refused to endorse his amendment. So Musharraf went directly to the voters, who had, by now, warmed to him. A referendum in April 2002 extended his rule for five years.

There is little doubt that the "war on terror" has given Musharraf added respectability. Wash ington loves him because he is just the kind of authoritarian leader they like to do business with. He is not only a vital ally but someone with deep inside knowledge of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the jihadi movements - indeed, his army and intelligence services helped to create them in the first place. Musharraf has used his privileged position to gain considerable benefits. He had sanctions against Pakistan, imposed because of its nuclear programme, lifted; secured a $1bn aid package; and negotiated the purchase of new weapons.

But Musharraf is aware that his supporters in Washington and London are embarrassed by the fact that he is, after all is said and done, an unelected, military ruler. He is about to put that right too, by holding presidential elections when his current term ends next year. Given the make-up of national and regional assemblies, he is assured of re-election; and he can then announce his democratic credentials to the world.

There's only one problem. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the disposed and discredited leaders living in exile, are plotting against him. The two heads of the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League are the only grass-roots politicians who can stand against Musharraf. They have now put their differences aside and signed a "Charter for Democracy" calling for the repeal of the LFO, the return of the army to the barracks and the restoration of full democracy to Pakistan. Bhutto and Sharif also want an independent election commission to be set up to ensure free and fair polls.

Proud to be Pakistani

Musharraf has threatened both leaders with dire consequences if they return to Pakistan. Sharif has been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption and there are numerous warrants against Bhutto. But in all probability, he will call their bluff. He could call an election in April, leaving Bhutto and Sharif unprepared to participate in a full-blown election. Even if he allows them time to prepare, he will find some way to short-change them. The champion of "enlightened moderation" is determined to be around for some time.

Musharraf may be a dictator, but he is strictly not of the tin-pot variety. He has survived two assassination attempts and numerous political upheavals. Under him, Pakistan has achieved high rates of economic growth but he has not accumulated any personal wealth, something that ordinary Pakistanis appreciate. He has also not muzzled the press, which aggressively maintains its independence. The leaders of other Muslim states hold him in high esteem. He is seen by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (the Muslim world's counterpart to the UN) as a "man of action" who gets things moving. And he is one of the few leaders in the world who has a finger on the nuclear button.

Last year, I bumped into him in the restaurant of the Intercontinental Hotel in Islamabad. He came over to my table and patted me on the back. "I am very interested," he said, "in the opinions of learned Pakistanis like you." "I am British," I replied. "And I think Pakistan is a failed state." "We will change your mind," he shot back. "We will make you proud to be a Pakistani." The only way he can do that is to hang up his military uniform.

Ziauddin Sardar is a New Statesman columnist and author of Desperately Seeking Paradise: journeys of a sceptical Muslim (Granta)