Benazir Touches the Fire; Will Pakistan Shine or Burn?

Benazir Bhutto called today for the resignation of Pervez Musharraf from both the army and presidency, giving strong indication that she has jumped off the fence and is now in complete opposition to Pakistan’s ruler. Though she has ruled out any future talks with Musharraf, it is unclear as to whether she is in communication with others in the army.

Her decision to fully oppose Pakistan’s ruler comes well after other opposition parties arrived at the same conclusion; it also follows her contravening of the spirit of the Charter of Democracy she signed with Nawaz Sharif in 2006 by going into talks with Musharraf. That is not to say others would not do the same if offered a Washington-backed foot in the door.

Though Bhutto now stands on the same side as Pakistan’s other opposition parties, she is not necessarily standing with them. Bhutto hasn’t completely ruled out participation in January’s scheduled polls. Indeed, she is clearly in campaign mode — intent on regaining the premiership and starting in Punjab. While other opposition leaders are — in the words of Imran Khan — “out of circulation,” Bhutto, using her relatively liberal treatment by Musharraf during emergency rule, has taken center stage.

While Washington might be comfortable with a post-Musharraf arrangement dominated by Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani and Benazir Bhutto, the Saudis are not enamored with the Daughter of the East and Darling of the West. Musharraf is expected to stop by Riyadh around John Negroponte’s visit this week; the Saudis would like to see the return of Nawaz Sharif, to restore a balance of civilian power favorable to them, and the release of ex-ISI chief Hamid Gul.

In order to ensure that Pakistan’s democratic moment lasts longer than a moment, Bhutto and, indeed, all of Pakistan’s opposition parties must mend relations; develop a collective agenda that also appreciates their natural political competition; and resist the temptation to resort to treachery, back-room deals, and — when out of power — sabotage.

If they fail to do so, Pakistan will witness a replay of previous short-lasting democratic transitions and a continuation of the corrosive cycle of failed civilian and military rule.

All this occurs at a critical juncture.  Neighbor and rival India, over the next fifteen years, will likely continue to move toward becoming a superpower. In which direction will Pakistan go? That of Algeria, Lebanon, or Somalia?

The onus is now on Pakistan’s civilian politicians to transcend their base instincts and not repeat the mistakes of the past. If they fail to do so, Pakistan may very well one day itself be seen as a mistake of the past.

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BREAKING NEWS: Benazir Bhutto under House Arrest

Pakistan’s GEO Television reports that People’s Party (PPP) Chairperson Benazir Bhutto has been put under house arrest by the government of Pakistan. Her party planned a rally in Rawalpindi today, the military’s administrative center and neighboring city to the capital, Islamabad.

Hamid Mir of GEO states that the decision was made by the Musharraf’s camp after relations between the PPP and the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) — the coalition of Islamist parties — warmed this week after years of frostiness. The MMA, and in particular the JUI-F, is one of the wild cards that will determine how big the street protests will become. Mir also added that Maulana Fazlur Rahman (JUI-F) could be placed under house arrest soon as well.

It should also be noted that Bhutto today called for the restoration of the pre-emergency rule Supreme Court. She had not mentioned this earlier in the week, and indeed stated that the allegations made against several of the justices should be looked into.

Update – 11:57PM: GEO reports that 3500 policemen have surrounded the Islamabad home of Benazir Bhutto.

Update – November 9, 2007 – 12:14AM: The People’s Party states that their Rawalpindi rally will go on as planned.

Update – 10:20AM: Pakistani government spokesmen state that Bhutto’s detainment — described as “extra-protection” for her own good, not house arrest — is for three days, though it could end as early as tonight (Pakistan time). No charges have been presented to her. In fact, her talks with the government have been continuing throughout this week. Tariq Azeem states that the government conceded to two of her demands yesterday, though doesn’t specify. Do they, respectively, pertain to the removal of corruption charges and Ejaz Shah as director of the Intelligence Bureau? Will the former cause her to compromise her recent calls for the restoration of the pre-emergency rule Supreme Court?

Bhutto seeks to lead an oppositional coalition — indeed interested parties in and outside of Pakistan prefer, and perhaps facilitate, this — and at the same time, negotiate with the Musharraf camp on quite on matters specific to her. It will be difficult to pursue both paths over an extended period of time. Ultimately she might have to face a choice. A couple of important things to keep an eye on: how long the house arrest lasts; whether she continues to call for a restoration of the pre-emergency rule Supreme Court; and whether she continues to be broadcast on government television. If Bhutto manages to maintain ties with the Musharraf camp and either cement the division of the opposition or consolidate her leadership of it, she will have made a political coup of her own.

Update – 1:27PM: The house arrest of Bhutto has been lifted. It was designed to be short and sweet, preventing her from participating in a rally that would ‘disrupt’ the balance as per her agreement with Musharraf and potentially have resulted in the significant loss of life. The government has claimed that seven suicide bombers entered Rawalpindi in recent days to attack. There is strong speculation that the day’s events are an orchestrated dance by the two sides. Bhutto managed to appear live on Pakistani state television.

Talks between the Musharraf and Bhutto camps are still going on. Bhutto would like a firmer promise from Musharraf on the holding of elections and his resignation from the army. However, there might also be some other issues involved, including decisions by the post-emergency rule Supreme Court on Bhutto’s corruption cases and the sacking of Ejaz Shah.

Both Bhutto and Musharraf will have to continue to evaluate the political costs of their cooperation. The closer Musharraf gets to Benazir, the more difficulty he creates for his political allies, the Chaudhries of the PML-Q. The closer to Benazir gets to Musharraf (while many of her political workers and some senior party leaders like Aitzaz Ahsan are in jail) she will add to the tension inside her party.

But there are also benefits: Bhutto gets a foot in the door free of the corruption cases and Musharraf gets some extra time.

Update – 4:03PM: Bhutto’s movement might still be restricted.  We’ll have to wait till the morning to see if it will continue.  It’s 2AM in Islamabad right now.

On another note, the Bush administration stated that after review it has concluded recent events won’t impact U.S. aid to Pakistan (largely as a result of waivers that go into next year).

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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