Monday, June 18, 2007
If Gen. Pervez Musharraf were the democratic leader he indignantly insists he is, he would not be so busy threatening independent news outlets, arresting hundreds of opposition politicians and berating parliamentary leaders and ministers from his own party for insufficient loyalty to his arbitrary and widely unpopular policies.
But nobody takes General Musharraf’s democratic claims seriously anymore, except for the Bush administration, which has put itself in the embarrassing position of propping up the Muslim world’s most powerful military dictator as an essential ally in its half-baked campaign to promote democracy throughout the Muslim world. Washington needs to disentangle America, quickly, from the general’s damaging embrace.
Ever since his high-handed dismissal of the country’s independent-minded chief justice in March, the general has been busily digging himself into an ever deeper political hole.
Last week, he issued a decree giving himself increased powers to shut down independent television channels, but under mounting pressure he withdrew it over the weekend. More than 300 local political leaders in Punjab were arrested in an effort to head off protests against the decree. Still, thousands of lawyers, journalists and political activists gathered to protest the firing, the censorship and the general’s continued rule. Pakistan seems to be rapidly approaching a critical turning point, with a choice between intensified repression and instability or an orderly transition back to democratic rule.
Were Washington now to begin distancing itself from the general, it would greatly encourage civic-minded Pakistanis to step up the pressure for free national elections. That’s a process the chief justice was trying to make possible when he was fired. And that is what Pakistan’s last two democratically elected leaders — Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif — are both campaigning for from abroad. The United States should be supporting these efforts, not continuing to make excuses for General Musharraf.
Pakistan has its share of violent Islamic extremists, military and civilian. But they are clearly in the minority. The best hope for diluting their political, and geopolitical, influence lies not in heating the pressure cooker of repression, but in promoting the earliest possible democratic elections.