Martial Law Ma-sha-allah

Here we are again. It is like the retelling of a great tragedy. To those of us writing about it, Pakistan is the dastaan, the oft-repeated, each time differently embellished narrative and we the dastaangos, the traveling storytellers. There are the unchanging, classic elements: a threat to the United States -- communism now replaced with 'Islamofascism,' the ensuing billions of dollars in aid to fend off the threat, a suspended judiciary, and of course le generale du jour.

Whether under Iskander Mirza, General Ayub Khan, General Zia-ul-Haq, or now our beloved General-cum-President Musharraf, Pakistan, for most of its history, has been led by a string of men with little regard for the constitution and an insatiable penchant for kickbacks.

Many of us watching were hopeful when the generalissimo first took power in a bloodless coup in '99 against the ghastly rotund Nawaz Sharif. We were almost proud when he appointed Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank celebrity, as Finance Minister, naively believing that some semblance of transparency and accountability would enter the frame of Pakistani politics.

Eight years later, Pakistani businessmen privately speculate on the wealth that the general has amassed in kickbacks, whether in person or through his son. And our friend Shaukat Aziz, his own wealth having grown exponentially, has been dubbed 'Shortcut' Aziz, for his flair for privatizing industries and giving away contracts to friends without any proper, competitive bidding process.

And now, as the United States piles on pressure for 'a return to democracy' and attempts to broker a power-sharing deal between the wildly corrupt Benazir Bhutto and a rakish Musharraf, the General--facing a Supreme Court that refuses to contravene the constitution--declares a state of emergency and (wait for it) suspends the constitution.

Musharraf's quandary is that the Pakistani constitution does not allow him to run for political office (as he wants to do), and concurrently hold his position as Chief of Army Staff. Of course this is not the first time that the general has suspended the constitution or found himself at loggerheads with the judiciary. Earlier, Musharraf faced significant opposition while trying to pass amendments that would allow him to dismiss the prime minister at will, dissolve parliament, and serve as president and the head of the army at the same time.

A modified version of the amendments was passed in 2004, allowing Musharraf to cling to both titles. Until now, that is. Currently up for reelection, he has announced plans to stay in power for another five years. Given this, the constitutionality of the general's proposition has resurfaced.

While Musharraf was actually voted into power for another five years by the Pakistani parliament last month--in Pakistan the parliament and state assemblies vote for the President--the Supreme Court declared that it needed to consider the legality of the general's preferred dual role first. This turn of events brings us to the current situation. Because he knew he would be challenged by the Supreme Court, the President fired the chief justice. Using a provisional constitutional order, he appointed a new chief justice along with three other Supreme Court justices. Interestingly, he has also announced on more than one occasion since the emergency that elections will be held soon.

Publicly we are being led to believe that a potential power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and the President is now out. Meanwhile, Bhutto, since her rocky bomb-laden welcome home party, has somehow continued to appear in the press calling for a restoration of democracy. Unlike her opponents, Bhutto has retained relative personal freedom through the current state of emergency.

On the other hand, a youthful looking Nawaz Sharif, recently having undergone a Bosleyan makeover, was unable to charm the president with his new set of hair. Upon landing in Lahore from Jeddah, his plane was forced to return under threat of arrest by Pakistani police. The incident became an embarrassment for the Saudis hosting him, not to mention a public humiliation for Sharif himself. Imran Khan, too, was held under house arrest, and was only recently able to escape to make a quick public statement from a Cheynian 'undisclosed location'.

In sharp contrast, Bhutto has even been allowed to appear on state television. Stepping back, one can see that, truthfully, Bhutto and Musharraf not only need each other, but are ideally positioned to help each other out. In the back-and-forth that has characterized the emergency, Bhutto is emerging more and more like a hero standing up to Musharraf. This is quite a feat for a former head of state who nearly robbed her country blind.

Musharraf, on the other hand, needs Bhutto to lend legitimacy to his election, and will likely undo the two-term limit for heads of state that Bhutto has exhausted. My gut tells me that very soon we will see Musharraf 'reluctantly agree' to Bhutto's calls for an end to the emergency. And then, he will gradually slide into a power-sharing agreement with her. All so we can go back to the beginning of the Pakistan story.


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