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18 October 1999

A very Pakistani coup

The army takeover was expected; that's why they read poetry, reports Ziauddin Sardar

By Ziauddin Sardar

When the Pakistanis want to understand what is really going on in their country, they turn to poetry. Urdu poetry has a great tradition of social commentary. So, when a poem by the philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, who came up with the vision of Pakistan, suddenly gained wide currency last month, everyone knew that the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was about to fall.

The military coup has confirmed the expectations of most Pakistanis. In a swift and bloodless move, Pakistan’s army chief, General Pervaiz Musharraf, dismissed the prime minister and his cabinet and took over the country. The general knew that the people were behind him, so there was no need for a large deployment of troops. It was enough to take over the state-run television station and surround a few government buildings. The Pakistani population continued with their business as though nothing had happened.

In his speech to the nation, General Musharraf felt no need to offer a detailed explanation. “You are all aware,” he said, “of the kind of turmoil and uncertainty that our country has gone through in recent times.” The army had taken over “as a last resort to prevent further destabilisation”.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected with one of the largest democratic mandates in Pakistan’s history. He used his parliamentary majority to insulate himself in power. Through a series of constitutional changes during the past two years, he outlawed all forms of dissent, gagging the president, the press, the judiciary and the unions. Last month, he changed the law to designate strikes and protests as “terrorist acts”. Another law led to expulsion from parliament for anyone speaking against the party or government. The power of state assemblies was consistently reduced and ministerial rule imposed from Islamabad.

Indeed, Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, had instituted a reign of terror. Critics of his government, including senior politicians, were regularly arrested and beaten up. In November 1997, government ministers and MPs stormed the supreme court and attacked the judges when it became clear that a judgement against the prime minister was about to be passed. Farooq Leghari, the former president who sacked Benazir Bhutto’s government on charges of corruption, has even accused the brothers of “openly direct- ing extra-judicial killings by the police”.

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Sharif was elected to revive Pakistan’s ailing economy. Instead he followed the well-trodden path of former political leaders and freely looted the country. Banks were forced to advance huge unsecured loans. Foreign aid ended up in carefully selected hands. Foreign debt rose to $32 billion. Foreign investment dried up, while Sharif invested abroad. Unemployment reached an all-time high, and prices spiralled out of control.

There is nothing unusual in all this. The people of Pakistan are used to their political leaders looting the country and taking it to the edge of the abyss. But two things sealed Sharif’s fate. First, his increasing reliance on Washington. After the border conflict in Kashmir that threatened to become a full-scale war with India, Sharif turned to the US for both internal and external support. Under US pressure, he withdrew the troops from Kargil. He repeatedly berated the army to the Clinton administration. On 20 September, an administration official even warned that the US would “strongly oppose any attempts to change the government through extra- constitutional means”.

Contrary to what the western newspapers are saying, the Pakistani army was not initially interested in ousting Sharif. But it believed that Sharif had negotiated some sort of agreement, with Washington’s help, with India to settle the long-standing Kashmir dispute. And that he was ready to sign unilaterally the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in exchange for economic aid.

Second, Sharif’s sudden conversion to “Islamic government” was widely seen as preparation for imposing dictatorial, one-family rule in the name of Islam. The key date for this transformation was to be March 2000, when elections for the Upper House, the senate, were due. Sharif was confident that once a senate of his choice was installed, there would be no one in the country to challenge his power.

No one except the army. Even though General Musharraf was his own appointee, Sharif was suspicious of him. Not least because Musharraf is known for integrity and piety and is highly regarded by the army. So while he was out of the country, Sharif sacked him, replacing him with the loyal General Khawaja Ziauddin, head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency. But military intelligence had already informed Musharraf of Sharif’s plan. So, before leaving for Sri Lanka, the general had set his planned coup in motion.

It would be foolish to see the political situation in Pakistan as a binary struggle between “democracy” and “military dictatorship”. In a strange twist of poetic irony, the army may have actually saved democracy. The generals know that in these postmodern times, military rule is akin to a plague. So they may opt for an interim “government of reform” or promise to hold an election in the near future. However, a segment of the army actually believes that it should go directly to the people and seek a mandate. In the current climate of disillusion with politicians, there is little doubt that the army would easily win a referendum to rule. As Muhammad Iqbal said so long ago, the choice between feudalistic politicians ransacking the country in the name of democracy and a military regime holding the country together in the name of law and order is no choice at all.

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