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Top dog to underdog

April 27, 2013
Former military ruler Pervez Musharraf speaks at a news conference. — Photo by AP/File
Former military ruler Pervez Musharraf speaks at a news conference. — Photo by AP/File

I NEVER thought the day would come when I would actually feel sorry for Musharraf. But I just can’t bring myself to side with the violent, thuggish lawyers baying for his blood.

From top dog to underdog is a long fall, but Musharraf accomplished it with a short flight from Dubai to Karachi. The moment he landed, reality (as opposed to the virtual reality of Facebook and Twitter) asserted itself in the shape of a miserably small group of supporters. Some returning hajis have bigger reception parties.

It’s been downhill ever since for the ex-dictator. From stinging editorials to nasty comments on TV chat shows, he has faced a barrage of criticism. But it has been in the courts where he has met his Waterloo. As expected, the judiciary is having a field day putting their nemesis through the wringer.

Far from addressing adoring crowds, Musharraf is reduced to confessions to CNN that have done little to add to his much-reduced image. The admission that he did indeed authorise the Americans to launch drone attacks has not gone down well, especially on the eve of elections in which he hoped to rise from the ashes.

But why did he expect a different welcome? When he boasts that he has more ‘likes’ on Facebook than Imran Khan, he forgets that much of his support comes from Pakistani expatriates. This community of fans saw him through rose-tinted glasses, and basked in the reflected glory of a leader in the Ayub mould who was respected abroad.

But to be fair to the man, there were few alternatives to his pro-US shift in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In the early days of the American invasion of Afghanistan, his policy seemed to pay dividends in the shape of massive loans written off and increased aid flows. For a country hit with a range of sanctions following our nuclear tests and Musharraf’s coup, this renewed Western engagement was a lifeline for a pariah state.

For several years, the economy did very well, and the middle class expanded at an impressive rate. And to Musharraf’s credit, he did increase the number of reserved seats for women in our assemblies, apart from ending the discriminatory system of separate electorates for minorities introduced by Zia.

As the judiciary and a section of the media indulge in a paroxysm of Musharraf-bashing, it’s easy to forget his achievements. But the fact is, whether we like it or not, he was president of Pakistan and deserves a modicum of respect. And while he’s certainly not above the law, he should not be subjected to the kind of uncivilised behaviour our lawyers have displayed.

Although I have little time for the dark, muttered warnings from retired generals, I am all for a degree of decorum even though this does not seem to be a priority for either our judges, or our lawyers. Musharraf’s monumental misjudgement in his handling of the judiciary ended his rule. By all means, try him for this and any other crimes he is accused of, but let’s not make a circus of the process.

Above all, the charges he faces ought not to have derailed his electoral bid. Disqualifying him means depriving the electorate of the opportunity of disabusing him of the notion that he is a hugely popular leader. If he had won from any of the seats he wanted to contest, he would have faced the daily indignity of rubbing shoulders with other parliamentarians, many of whom have good reason to dislike him. Letting him run would have strengthened democratic traditions.

Even if his Chak Shahzad fortress had not been declared a sub-jail, where would Musharraf go? With his life under constant threat, he would have discovered that even close friends would have been reluctant to tempt fate and the Taliban by inviting him over.

The recent discovery of an explosives-laden car outside his house underscores the magnitude of the risk to his life. I wonder how the car made it past the checkpost on the only approach to Chak Shahzad? Was it by any chance subjected to scrutiny by the hand-held explosive-detection devices we see while entering the premises of airports and other high-security areas?

If so, it’s easy to see why the car was probably waved through: these devices simply do not work, and their seller, Jim McCormick, has just been arrested in the UK for the scam that made him a cool £50 million. These phoney detectors were sold for as much as £10,000 each, and only cost £15 to put together.

But I digress. The truth is that Musharraf, a soldier who has often boasted of his grasp of strategy, has put himself in an untenable position. Among the first things they teach you at command school is to never join battle without a clear escape route. Musharraf has none.

The only way he can extricate himself is through international intervention. While the army might like to help, it now lacks the political clout to pull their ex-chief’s chestnuts out of this particular fire. The Americans, too, would not like to put their hands into this hornet’s nest. Only the Saudis have the muscle with the Pakistani establishment to allow Musharraf back into the exile he never should have left.

No matter how this saga ends, Musharraf’s return was a huge blunder. But being the kind of person he is, I doubt he’ll learn from it. Soon after the 1999 coup, a Time magazine reporter interviewed his mother for a cover story on the latest Pakistani general to seize power. In the report, the delightfully blunt lady was quoted as saying: “I have three sons; one joined the civil service, and the next one became a doctor. Musharraf was not as bright as his brothers, so we sent him into the army.”