Pakistan faces a crisis. President Musharraf has gone a route that appears to be highly tyrannical—declaring a state of emergency, suspending human rights guarantees, and arresting his enemies (including the head of the Supreme Court). For this, he’s been roundly criticized. We who are fortunate enough to live in this country look at his actions and see violations of all we hold dear in government.
But what were his alternatives, and what are the alternatives for Pakistan? Here’s some food for thought, neither tasty nor pleasant, but probably realistic:
…the potential ruling of the Supreme Court invalidating his October reelection…would have left the country without a constitutional president, which would have only deepened the current constitutional crisis. He would not have stepped down as president of course — at this point the “constitution” of Pakistan is so FUBARed that nobody even knows quite what it is anymore, and purely formal questions would have made it necessary to invoke a “state of emergency” — which here really meant little more than “I’m going to shut the Supreme Court up before the Supreme Court rules that Pakistan has no legitimate government.” I would remind you as well that [chief supreme court justice Iftikhar] Chaudhry is a post-Musharraf-coup judge who came to be chief justice when he sworn an oath to Musharraf’s provisional constitutional order of 1999 — precisely the same oath he now decries.
In Spanish we have a saying, if you shoot an elephant, make sure you kill him with the first shot. Musharraf’s real mistake was to dismiss Chaudhry in March without “killing him” politically — now Chaudhry is on a rampage, a personal vendetta, and has the standing — and grass-roots prowess — to consider a kind of coup against Musharraf, provided he can gain army backing.
The dreadful truth is that, as I’ve written here in a slightly different context, the choice in many countries seems to be between the Scylla of dictatorship and the Charybdis of anarchy—or worse. That, I’m afraid, may be the choice facing Musharraf today. Those who would like him to institute reforms are ignoring the fact that reforms can be a tricky thing in a country so filled with opposing power-hungry forces that are bent on the destruction of even the modest rights and stability that were previously available in Pakistan. And Chaudhry is by no means the worst of those forces, nor is it clear that Musharraf’s downfall would lead to his victory. Once the forces of chaos are unleashed, events can spiral out of control.
Many have likened this current crisis in Pakistan to events in the late 70s in Iran, when the America-friendly but repressive Shah was toppled and the Islamicists won, ushering a reign of repression and terror that has been considerably worse—not just from the US point of view, but for the Iranian people—than the Shah’s.
I’ve written a great deal about how that revolution came to be, and it’s sadly relevant to the situation today in Pakistan. Please read this, a study of how the Shah’s efforts at reform (and those of his short-lived successor, Bakhtiar) helped bring about the downfall of their governments and usher in the mullahs:
Khomeini didn’t have to worry about making martyrs of his enemies, nor about whether to allow them to remain in Iran and exercise freedom of speech. Tyranny doesn’t struggle with the same sort of philosophical questions about how much toughness is too much, questions with which its opponents wrestle mightily.
Musharraf needs to wrestle with such questions, of course; otherwise, he becomes as bad as those who would overthrow him. And he may have indeed overstepped in his recent actions, which is why President Bush has pressured Musharraf to hold elections as planned in February, and the Pakistani leader has acquiesced.
Whether this will save him—or Pakistan—remains to be seen. I certainly don’t have enough information on the situation there to even begin to make a prediction.
History’s a bit—although only a bit—easier to understand than the future. President Carter, for example, was instrumental in undermining the Shah’s rule and helping to usher in its terrible aftermath by pressuring him for reforms despite the forces arrayed against him, forces that were empowered and unleashed by those very reforms (see this for an in-depth discussion of that process). Bush must be careful not to do the same, while at the same time being careful Musharraf does not become more repressive than absolutely necessary, a difficult judgment to make.
The quoted saying about shooting elephants is one of those cynical remarks that contain sad truths. Oh, if only the world were a better place, a world in which Machiavelli and his works were demented irrelevancies! Unfortunately, it is not, and enraged elephants on the loose can be very very dangerous.