Issue No 39, April 27-May 03, 2003 | ISSN:1684-2075 | satribune.com

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Clueless Musharraf Battles for Political Survival

By Shaheen Sehbai

ISLAMABAD: General Pervez Musharraf appeared totally confused, directionless and under intense political (Opposition) and military (his own commanders) pressure last week as he desperately tried to wriggle out of the deep hole he has dug for himself by his ill considered utterances and arrogant acts of political immaturity.

In the panic situation that he finds himself in, he has launched several political initiatives simultaneously, most of them at odds with each other and sending totally confusing messages. He pretended to be confident and tough when he spoke to the Editors of the leading newspapers. He abused the politicians but asked his Prime Minister to start a political dialogue with the Opposition. He is thinking of calling these Opposition leaders for a meeting himself sometime in the week beginning April 28.

“The President’s House looks like a rudderless boat,” a seasoned analyst remarked. "The President is clueless and directionless. His main political advisers and players are not helping either." Head honcho of the King’s Party, Choudhry Shujaat Hussain, started making direct attacks on the role of the army in politics and in several interviews criticized Musharraf indirectly. Shujaat was said to have been dumped by Musharraf after major political failures to contain the Opposition protests inside the Parliament.

The General, who has been humiliated by his own Parliament of “University Graduates” first called it “uncivilized” and then confirmed that he was not going to risk entering the Assembly Hall where he would face slogans of “Go Musharraf Go”, some eggs, tomatoes or even shoes and slippers of Maulanas. His remarks let loose a storm and hardened Opposition ranks. Now there is no way he can go back to address the Parliament in a decent, smooth setting.

That means he is not going to inaugurate the formal session of Parliament, a constitutional requirement for every president. In a couple of weeks his Finance Minister must present his annual budget before the National Assembly and there is no escape clause unless the Assembly is dissolved. Without a formal Joint Session, the Budget Session cannot be convened. The hole is getting deeper.

The real pressure, however, is coming from his army commanders and Musharraf himself gave enough indications that all was not well inside his own house. His strategy to get out of this mess so far has been to talk tough and bulldoze his way out.

The first step he took was to call all national editors and leading journalists and speak to them. He told them he first wanted to address the nation on TV but then decided this meeting could double as his talk to the nation. It was a confirmation that he felt compelled to “address the nation” on the matter, as pressure was unrelenting.

Sources told SA Tribune the Editors meeting was a virtual disaster and Musharraf rushed out of the meeting after two senior Editors, both from an influential newspaper locked horns with him on the crux of the whole issue, tearing apart his arguments and justifications for keeping his uniform and wearing the hats of the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces (as president) and his own subordinate Chief of Army Staff.

One participant of the Editors meeting gave his impressions in these words: “He always carries a chip on his shoulder. Gives the impression that he is rather impatient with the way he is perceived by his detractors. When he opens his mouth he does it only to answer his critics. He did not say anything new during the press conference. More than half of the time he repeated his achievements on the economic front. He wants his critics to judge him by these so-called achievements and also tries to draw legitimacy for his illegitimate actions from these achievement alone.”

“He is still trying to hijack the PPP from Benazir Bhutto and continues to try to use Asif Ali Zardari as a handle to blackmail her. He recognizes the MMA as the genuine opposition party but cannot bring it on board because of fear of international reaction.”

The well respected Editor of ‘Dawn’, Mr. Ahmed Ali Khan, who has recently returned to the newspaper after a period of retirement for almost two years, asked a lengthy question going into the philosophy of military dictatorships and their history inside and outside the country. He observed that Musharraf was creating a confrontation between the people and the army. Mr. Khan's question was so lethal Musharraf had no answer.

But Musharraf simply disagreed with Mr.Khan and called this a “doom's day scenario”. But he had no arguments to counter Mr. Khan’s well laid out case. The impression he left was that if he loses power, it would be “Doom’s day” for the country. In other words, he thinks he himself is Pakistan. When the PTV played the video of the meeting later, Mr. Khan’s question was neatly censored. Obviously the Press could not be shown to be that free, exposing the Emperor as naked.

Another senior Editor, M. Ziauddin of ‘Dawn’ Islamabad entered into a bitter argument with Musharraf over the way he (one man) had tried to change the constitution, getting the authority to do so from courts whose own integrity was dubious. This irritated the General but his reply was simplistic and self-serving: “I have consulted thousands of people.”

Ziauddin retorted by saying the representatives of these thousands of people in the parliament did not agree with what he had done. Musharraf said the courts had given him the authority. Ziauddin said the courts suffered from dubious integrity. These arguments continued for some time and left the General non-plussed, and irritated. After one or two other easy questions he rushed out of the room.

A noted columnist of leading Daily “The News”, Kamran Shafi described Musharraf’s meeting with Editors in these words: “I was one of those who came out of the General's briefing-cum-address to the nation dazed, confused and, like Mr. Jamali's government, completely at sea. I mean it was unbelievable, our General's performance: for the harshness of his words; for the indelicacy of his remarks about the leading political personalities of the country; for the sheer rancor he exhibited.”

Shafi wrote in his column the next day: “This was not the extremely courteous and very dignified man I admired and had the great pleasure of hearing twice in the past; a man in complete command of his feelings, who would refer to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif as 'they' or 'them' in the politest sense (in Urdu meaning 'theirs' or 'unhon nay' meaning 'they'). This was a rough and ready street-fighter ready to mix it up, so to say. A man at the end of his tether you might say, too. Which not only made me very sad. It frightened the living daylights out of me.”

Shafi himself is an ex-army man and his observations that Musharraf was “a man at the end of tether” was echoed by another senior journalist and analyst Mr. M.A. Niazi of the Daily “Nation”. Niazi found that after giving some ordinary arguments for keeping his uniform, Musharraf suddenly said things which seemed odd.

He wrote: “But then he said something rather odd: “At this time, national solidarity is needed. Between the military and the civil.. We have to take along the nation, including the military. I’ve been touring the garrisons, addressing gatherings of 500 officers in the garrisons, just as frankly, and even more frankly, as I’m addressing you. I’ve been to the Navy and Air force. We had a four-day formation commanders’ meeting, where we meet for three hours a day. If I’m not in uniform, I can’t talk to them.”

Totally confused by these remarks, Niazi asked in his column: “Is there some problem in the armed forces? In the Army itself? Is there some fear in the President’s mind? Does he see some threat of some kind? While conceding that the posts need separating, does his refusal to set even a timeframe indicate that there are certain developments, some kind of situation, which he needs to bring under control, but about which he does not know how long he will take? Are there undercurrents the rest of the nation knows nothing about?”

These questions arise from reports, including some which have appeared in SA Tribune, that the Army commanders were not happy with the situation and wanted Musharraf to resolve it sooner than later.

But it is obvious that Musharraf cannot disclose the details of what his commanders have been telling him in three-hour sessions, each day for four days, or a total of 12 hours of discussions. Naturally unless there are different points of view and unless commanders express them freely, no discussion can continue for 12 hours. The reality then is that Musharraf has been forced by his commanders to correct the situation, or else….

SA Tribune has learnt that General Musharraf wants to take off his uniform anytime in next five years, as he told the Editors, but not before October 2004 when all the present senior Generals and commanders, who at one time or another helped Musharraf come into power, retire from the
Army.

This date has been given by Musharraf to several people in private sessions. October 2004 is when the last of these Generals, including present Vice Chief of Army Staff, General Yousuf will retire. Then there would be no senior General to challenge him and he can pick his own most trusted boy as new Army Chief.

But the problem is that all the Generals know who is retiring when and they also know that if they wait until Oct 2004, they will go home with the wish to be Army Chief buried in their hearts. They also know that through a game of power play, using them, Musharraf who should have retired in 2001, had extended his tenure as Army Chief and then as President indefinitely. How will they react is the big question.

Analysts say no one will directly challenge Musharraf but they will do what their predecessors have been doing: Push the Opposition into a direct bitter confrontation with Musharraf until he was totally exhausted or committed a blunder which could not be justified or tolerated. Then they may ask the Chief to ease out.

Political insiders say this game of using the Opposition has already begun. A recently elected senator said the MMA leaders were acting as if they already have the script of what is going to come in their hands. They cannot be so methodical unless secret messages are being received and word was being passed that Musharraf was getting jittery and nervous and more pressure was needed.

To argue against this pressure, Musharraf has started to convince Parliamentarians in separate meetings. In one such meeting with Senators of supportive parties he said the Opposition parties should not insist on the removal of his uniform as it would "harm democratic institutions in the country". “If I relinquish the office of the COAS, as was being demanded by the opposition parties, the present political system could come under pressure from various quarters,” he said.

Analysts say this is a direct threat that he would wind up the entire system if this demand was pressed. But by talking about “various quarters” he was also warning that some other army people may be involved. The Generals are probably waiting for him to declare his three-year experiment as a failure. Then they may find the courage and the justification to ask him to step aside.

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