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Our friend the dictator

Published: November 16, 2007
Section: Opinions


Pakistan has a brutal history of military dictatorships, but when General Pervez Musharraf instituted a state of emergency a little less than two weeks ago, Pakistanis got to experience something unprecedented in their political history. For the first time, heavily armed Pakistan police besieged the countrys courts. Musharrafs megalomaniacal move was designed to prevent the Supreme Court from ruling that his reelection last month was illegitimate.

If youve been following the situation in the Western press, you might think that lawyers and judges are the only victims of what many in Pakistan have called Musharraf second coup. Clearly, there is some truth to this;

the judiciary certainly is under attack. Lawyers who speak out against the state of emergency are quickly detained, and most of the judges who have shown any independence from the regime over their career are under house arrest or in jail. The state of emergency has, however, more widespread effects which have received less coverage in the US and British Media.

Not only are lawyers and judges suffering, but also any political figure associated with the opposition. Benizir Butto, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, who criticized the state of emergency despite her recent negotiations with Musharraf has been in and out of house arrest;

the acting leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), Javed Hashmi, had only been out of prison two months when the authorities rearrested him only hours after the state of emergency began. Other political leaders are in jail or in hiding. Musharraf also cracked down on human rights campaigners. Interestingly, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid reports that women are overrepresented among the imprisoned activists.

This all raises an important question. Musharraf claims that he declared martial law in order to save the country from Islamic extremists. If that is the case, why has he imprisoned the secular politicians, liberal lawyers and judges, and female activists? Certainly, these three groups have rarely expressed much sympathy theocratic religious movements. If anything, the extremist elements will be strengthened now that many of the people who could form the cornerstone of a democratic Pakistan are in prison.

Musharraf is not the only person whose hypocrisy has come to the fore during the state of emergency. President Bush recently called for heavy sanctions when the military rulers of Burma cracked down on pro-democracy protesters, but when the US-allied Musharraf instituted similar draconian measures, Bush responded not with admonitions and sanctions but with half-hearted calls for democracy coupled with a cynical re-affirmation of the administrations support for Musharrafs dictatorial regime.

Apologists for the Bush administration maintain that Pakistan is a loyal ally in the so-called war on terror. In fact, Musharraf has done very little to combat terrorism, to wit he allowed Pakistans Waziristan region to become an Al-Qaeda safe haven and a virtually independent Islamic state. Even if Musharraf did decide to move against Al-Qaeda, he would likely be overthrown by the majority of Pakistans populace who resent Musharrafs close relationship with Washington. All this just makes the administrations doubletalk on democracy all the more infuriating. Certainly, this is nothing new;

the US has been supporting dictators while trumpeting democracy for generations. I should be used to it by now, but somehow Im more incensed every time it happens because after Pinochet, Suharto, Duvalier, Marcos, Pahlevi and dozens more, shouldnt the American people know better?

For now, despite the dedicated work of activists who are risking their lives on the streets protesting the regime, most Pakistanis have remained silent. Only time will tell whether this protest movement can gain the popular support it needs to topple the government. Until then, it is up to those of us living in America not only to support the Pakistani protests, but also to be more skeptical of our own government when its democratic rhetoric is at odds with its dictatorial practice.