The Musharraf episode

Updated March 23, 2016


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

The furore over Musharraf’s leaving the country seems to be a case of much ado about nothing. It is simply a political compromise that the Sharif government needed to make in order to remove a major source of tension with the generals. It is also a recognition of the limitation of a civilian administration that had already crossed the Rubicon by daring to put a former military strongman on trial for high treason.

The PPP is now using the issue to whip the government, but had already accepted the constraint long ago by not insisting on prosecuting the disgraced military leader when the party was in power. That compromise surely contributed to its completing a full term in office despite perpetual tensions with the military. Now out of power, the party finds it expedient to take a hard line on the issue. But it is nothing more than a storm in a teacup.

Surely, lifting the restriction on his travelling internationally is not meant to ensure Musharraf is let off the hook altogether. But the treason trial already seems to have fallen apart. It is obvious that the issue is almost a closed chapter. The other cases against the former military leader too do not seem to be going anywhere. So the show of flexibility could help the government build bridges with the military leadership and buy greater political space to deal with other critical national issues.

For the PM, allowing Musharraf to leave the country was, perhaps, a necessary accommodation with the army.

But this newfound pragmatism has come the hard way. Nawaz Sharif’s decision to start the treason case against Musharraf had brought him into confrontation with the military leadership from the start of his third term in office. The ensuing tension also gave credence to the speculation about the military’s backing for the dharna staged by the Imran-Qadri duo.

Although Sharif scraped through that crisis, the military made it clear that its former chief would not stand trial for treason. While on his way to a special court in 2014, Musharraf was whisked away to a military hospital where he was kept under strict security. Musharraf, however, did appear before the tribunal reportedly after a deal with the military leadership that he would be allowed to leave the country after the proceedings. A special aircraft was ready to fly him to the UAE, but Nawaz Sharif reportedly reneged on the agreement.

That further heightened the stand-off. Although the trial was resumed later, Musharraf hardly appeared before the court. For the past one year, he had been living under the military’s protection in his residence in Karachi. He was also exempted from appearance in other cases. The only problem was that he was not allowed to travel abroad. The federal government sought to take the court’s cover on the issue. But that too was blown by the latest Supreme Court ruling that it did not have anything to do with him being put on the Exit Control List.

Musharraf returned from self-exile to Pakistan in 2013 against the advice of the then army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani who had in 2008 negotiated a deal for a respectable exit for his former boss. He found himself entangled in legal battle as he landed in Karachi. Gen Kayani could hardly do anything to extricate him from that embarrassing situation.

But the conflict came to a head when Musharraf was charged with high treason. That was also the time of a change of guard in the army with Gen Raheel Sharif taking over. The angst of the generals was evident in the reportedly tough messages sent to the prime minister through the new chief. After resisting pressure for almost two years, the prime minister has finally yielded.

For sure, civil-military relations have stabilised to some extent over the past year after the intensification of the fight against terrorism following the Peshawar school carnage by militants in December 2014. But the treason trial remained a sore point.

There was certainly no political dividend for Sharif to stick to his hardline position on Musharraf’s exit from the country. Gen Raheel Sharif is retiring in a few months’ time, but the new commander would also be under pressure from his officers not to let their former chief stand trial for treason. Another factor that may have compelled the prime minister to soften his position is the growing challenge from right-wing Islamic parties who stepped up their anti-government campaign following the execution of Mumtaz Qadri and the passage of the women’s protection bill by the Punjab government.

Sharif is now increasingly reliant on the army as the battle against militancy enters a critical stage. The hanging of Qadri also seems to have affected his conservative religious constituency. Though his government is much more stable it can still not afford to antagonise the generals. For Sharif, allowing Musharraf to leave the country was, perhaps, a necessary accommodation with the army in order to keep the political process going. Even those who are crying themselves hoarse over the issue know this well.

Musharraf may still return at some stage. Yet it is highly unlikely that the treason trial will reach any conclusion. Indeed, everyone should be held accountable for illegal, unconstitutional actions, but justice should not be selective. Some of those who want Musharraf’s head have themselves been associated with military regimes in the past.

There are too many skeletons in their closets. It was the judiciary that had legitimised the coup and an elected parliament later indemnified all the actions taken by the military-led government. Was it not the PPP government that upheld many of the actions taken by Musharraf after he imposed emergency in 2007 including the appointment of Justice Hameed Dogar as chief justice?

Even if by chance the former military ruler is convicted, it is not going to block the way for future adventurers. What is needed is the strengthening of democratic institutions and restoration of the public’s faith in civilian institutions. This is the only way to stop Bonapartism in the future.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2016