The end of Musharraf’s rule: How soon, How bad?

In May 2006, while sitting at the house of Kashmiri resistance leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani in Srinagar on the Indian side of Kashmir, Geelani told me about his interesting meeting with President Musharraf at Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. After talking about the lack of international support for Kashmir, Musharraf sought Geelani’s support for his new Kashmir policy. Irritated by his lecturing, when Geelani asked about the viability of his new policy, Musharraf retorted, “Bush and Blair are with me and they support this formula”. To Geelani’s further remark that it would not be acceptable to the people of Pakistan or Kashmiris, pat came the same reply of Bush and Blair support. With Tony Blair gone a while back and President Bush having not long to go, General Musharraf’s options are fast running out. And it seems that his end is very near.

The speculation of the end comes after the current Chief of the Army Staff, General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani held a three and a half hour long meeting with the President on Wednesday 28th May that went till midnight. According to the leading Pakistani daily The News, General Kayani looked his former boss ‘in the eye’ claiming that the ‘longest one-on-one encounter’ was significant ‘as it took place after day-long consultations of the Army chief with his important commanders’. A day earlier, General Kayani shifted Musharraf’s loyal commander Brigadier Aasim Bajwa from the elite Triple One Brigade; a group that has taken active part in all the previous military coups in the country’s turbulent history. In addition, the new Army chief removed and replaced the elite commandos that guarded the President’s security. Although the official version is that these transfers are routine, two of Pakistan’s top defence analysts and former Army Generals –” General Talat Mahmood and General Mueen-ud-Din Haider have termed these replacements as extraordinary. It is important to note that these changes came only a few days after the rumours that President Musharraf was trying to replace the army chief through his Constitutional power as the President to appoint new Army Chief.

There are indications which suggest that Musharraf might be sent packing as soon as this weekend. According to the latest reports, special security has been put in place in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi ‘in view of significant impending developments’ and special contingents have also been deployed at important installations as well as the Army House. The former Army Chief General Mirza Aslam Beg is claiming that Musharraf has been put under virtual house arrest by the Army who is finalising his departure, possibly to Turkey. The News, a leading daily from Pakistan in one of its news reports claimed that a plane from a neighbouring country is waiting as the ‘packing at an important house in Rawalpindi is in full swing as the modalities have also been finalised for the exit of the significant family.’

The situation has changed dramatically over the past few days as the Persident is being further isolated politically. Last week, Asif Zardari, the main leader of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) threw caution to winds and openly attacked Musharraf calling him as part of the problem and asked for his resignation. When his attention was driven towards rising price of commodities and growing public anger, his response that people can bear the price rise but they cannot bear the presence of Pervez Musharraf in the office anymore. According to Pakistani observers, Zardari hardened his stand against President Musharraf due to growing public anger and impatience with the restoration of judiciary that PPP and its leading ally Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had promised during their election campaign. The government’s failure to restore judges has already created fissures in the coalition as PML-N ministers resigned in protest, putting PPP leadership under public scanner.

There is also growing media pressure on the PPP government for the restoration of judiciary and many news reports and commentators have directed their anger towards Asif Zardari for the failure to oust Musharraf or restore judiciary. There is anger within the PPP ranks as well. This was evident in a recent PPP meeting headed by the co-chair Asif Zardari wherein many party leaders led a virtual revolt on these issues. Many PPP members believe that going soft with President Musharraf is eroding the party image and that of the newly formed government. Responding to the public anger and political pressure, the PPP announced last week that it was cutting President’s powers through a comprehensive constitutional amendment, turning him from an all-powerful leader into a ceremonial figurehead. Asif Ali Zardari’s changed stance on President was reflected by the Prime Minister Gilani who in his latest statement did not rule out the possibility of impeachment against the President saying that his government can manage the required support from the law makers.

Although the US is still backing Musharraf and pushing for direct talks between Asif Zardari and the President Musharraf, there is hardly any incentive for Zardari. In fact, such a route is fraught with umpteen dangers as the pressure from multiple sources to dispense with the painful Musharraf legacy is growing. The visible American support is also going against Musharraf as he is seen as a total US stooge with hardly any appeal or utility for the Pakistani masses. Following its path of strategic blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration is obsessed with Musharraf at the cost of eroding US influence in the region. It is no surprise that despite pumping billions of dollars in aid and assistance during the last 60 years of Pakistan’s existence, majority of Pakistanis have a highly unfavourable view of the United States. Suspected ‘American hand’ is an alibi for all the failures and pathologies that haunt Pakistan today. By supporting Musharraf’s undemocratic and dictatorial rule, the US has even lost support and goodwill of the secular civil society of Pakistan that has been spearheading a movement for social change and independent judiciary. Presenting a slice of Pakistani feelings, the Pakistani newspapers, web forums and blogs are littered with anti-American feelings and how Pakistan’s civil society and intelligentsia feel betrayed by the US through its support to a President that is widely resented and hated. It is widely believed that it is due the American support that Musharraf is still holding on to his presidency and many Pakistanis have termed it as the insult for their nation that voted against dictatorship and overwhelmingly chose secular politicians to lead the country. Referring to the US influence in Pakistan, one of the Pakistan’s senior and secular politician Rasool Baksh Palejo claimed that Pakistan will become America’s Waterloo and prove more disastrous than Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the pressure on the President mounts, the US and the Western support may not be able to sustain Musharraf for long and his ‘Bush and Blair’ blurb seems to have lost relevance. Emboldened by the actions of new Army chief as well as the continuing public anger, the politicians are now calling for Musharraf’s head. While the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief has repeated his demand for impeachment, the PPP is also toeing a hard line with the party chief Asif Zardari calling him the main impediment between the public and the government. Shahbaz Sharief, senior leader of the PML-N has called upon Musharraf to step down immediately or else he will be dragged out of his throne with no honour left. Another senior leader and head of the party in largest province Punjab, Zulfiqar Khosa has gone further and demanded that Musharraf should be put on exit control list and banned from leaving the country. He has also called for full investigation into the ‘crimes’ committed by the Musharraf regime and flayed those are talking about safe passage for the President. The angry voices that call for President Musharraf’s head will be further strengthen as the lawyers movement is preparing for a country wide ‘long march’ against the government’s failure to reinstate judges widely perceived to be opposed by the US administration. The planned march would be led by the PPP leader and prominent lawyer Atizaz Ahsan, who has also called for trail of President Musharraf.

The current situation has forced Musharraf’s once close political allies into retreat. The Pakistan Muslim Qaid (PML-Q) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) have been strong supporters of the President in the past, but are watching the current developments without offering him any support. The indications are that the crisis might force the new civilian government and the Army to act together and perhaps remove the sticky president by force. Such a move would prove highly popular and reinstate the public image of both the Army and Pakistan People’s Party and its government. Many leading newspapers are also calling for Musahrraf to resign. Pakistan’s leading Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt, in an editorial headlined "King Musharraf," said he was running out of options and should learn a lesson from Nepal’s King Gyanendra, who was forced out as monarch this week after its parliament voted to make the country a republic. Another influential English daily, The Daily Times also advised the President to resign adding that by delaying his departure, Musharraf would "only add to the number of his opponents and make them increasingly determined." The odds are heavily staked against the former elite Army commando turned President whose space for any manoeuvre is shrinking by the moment.

The pressure is also building on General Musahrraf to leave the Army House, his chosen seat of power, despite his retirement as the Army Chief last year. Scores of retired Army Generals including his former colleagues and mentors recently launched a public campaign to force him out of the Army House. To humiliate him further, a petition was submitted in the court to remove him from the illegal possession of the building. According to some reports, the new Army Chief General Kayani has also asked Musharraf to leave the Army House and wait for his fate in the Presidential House. Indications are that the President Musharraf is leaving the Army House, but his move into the Presidential Palace is highly uncertain. As the whole country is gunning for his blood, the distance between the Musharraf and his new seat of power is getting wider. It seems his career may be extinguished soon and he may never reach the Presidential Palace.