He passed away quietly in political exile after fading away from power — a footnote to history and democracy.
But in his prime, Pervez Musharraf personified Pakistan’s tug of war between democratic rule and military dictatorship.
The former president, who died of natural causes last month in Dubai, served unexpectedly and unintentionally as an enduring precedent for Pakistani politics. Forced from power and put on trial, he became exhibit A for the limits of military intervention, amid Pakistan’s ongoing descent into disorder.
When I interviewed the army general at the height of his powers two decades ago, he reacted defiantly to my questions about the suspension of democratic rule. Perched in his heavily guarded official residence, Musharraf accused me of misunderstanding Pakistan’s essence:
“What do you really mean by democracy?” he challenged as we sat down at Army House in the historic garrison city of Rawalpindi.
“Don’t see us from Canadian eyes, see us from Pakistani eyes,” Musharraf lectured, trying to turn the tables on me.
He would be flying out in a few days to Ottawa for an official visit, to be feted by then-prime minister Jean Chrétien, and he was in no mood to be second-guessed by Canadians.
“Democracy has failed in Pakistan,” he continued. “People are not empowered, democracy has not permeated down to the grassroots, people’s level.”
Proof, perhaps, that there is no disabusing a dictator of his ability or longevity. Yet time was not on Musharraf’s side.
It had been four years since he’d seized power in a dramatic coup, after then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif had dismissed him as army chief while Musharraf was out of the country. With his plane denied permission to land in Islamabad, running low on fuel, he ordered the army to commandeer the airport and arrest the prime minister.
By the time he agreed to our interview, many Pakistanis were resigned to the perennial putsch that reminded voters of the military’s tight grip. A pliant but not entirely compliant Supreme Court had set a time limit for Musharraf to remove his general’s uniform if he wanted to remain as president.
But even if he now looked like the emperor with no clothes, the president dared not surrender his army khakis lest he lose the cloak of power. He refused to commit to the court’s deadline on the grounds that Pakistan needed his firm hand to foster democracy’s recovery:
“I believe there should be a degree of stability, political democratic stability coming into Pakistan ….. and then I should go, remove that uniform,” he mused. “If I have to go back on my word — I am one person who believes strictly in not going back on my word, when I say something I must do it — so therefore this is another constraint on me. I would not like to say something which I don’t adhere to later.”
It wouldn’t be long before the dictator had to eat the words he had dictated to me in 2003.
He had rewritten the constitution ahead of the flawed 2002 elections that handed him unchallenged powers, but then broke his promise to resign as army chief by the end of 2004. In our interview, Musharraf had shown contempt toward elected politicians:
“Parliaments are not functioning fully in a democratic manner … in a civilized manner.”
But after a public outcry, and poetic justice, he was dethroned by emboldened parliamentarians threatening impeachment in 2008. Yet four years later, after living in self-imposed exile in London and Dubai, an unrepentant Musharraf flew back to stage a political comeback.
This time, he could not command an army to commandeer the country.
The authorities placed him under house arrest and put him on trial for treason, accused of defying the Supreme Court and other transgressions — not least allegations of his connivance in the assassination of his political rival, Benazir Bhutto, in 2007.
Musharraf had himself dodged at least two dramatic assassination attempts in the same year that I interviewed him. A car bomb threw his own armoured vehicle into the air, blowing out the tires and forcing the driver to speed away just on its rims, while Musharraf pulled out his Glock pistol, ready to face his would-be assassins.
When I met him months later in the high-ceilinged drawing room of the colonial-era Army House, Musharraf had just been declared a target, yet again, by al-Qaida. But the president had never fathomed that, even in a faltering democracy, he might meet his match in civilian politicians and ordinary voters.
After all, the history of Pakistan is littered with alternating military coups and democratic interregnums. The spectre of yet another army takeover — there have been three so far — has kept every civilian leader looking over his or her shoulder since the country’s founding upon Partition in 1947.
But the image of Musharraf suddenly bared of his armour, and barred from power, made a deep and — so far — lasting impression on Pakistanis. It may, over time, force other military pretenders to the throne to think twice about the army’s staying power.
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SPEAKING of democracy … I’m giving a public lecture on The Power of Media and Democracy at Toronto Metropolitan University’s International Issues Discussion series at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 15, at 245 Church St. Bring your questions, the talk is open to all.
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