Death of a scoundrel

General Pervez Musharraf, former dictator of Pakistan, died yesterday after a long illness (said to be amyloidosis, although the New York Times just calls it “unspecified”), in the United Arab Emirates, where he had lived in exile since 2016.

Musharraf seized power in a coup in 1999, later declaring himself president. In 2002 he legitimised his rule by holding elections, but in 2007 he declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. New elections in 2008 gave his opponents a parliamentary majority, making his position untenable; after some months of manoeuvring he threw in the towel and resigned.

After four and a half years of exile he returned to Pakistan in 2013, planning to run for office, but he quickly became bogged down in legal difficulties. He was first disqualified and then arrested on charges relating to the events of 2007. Given the opportunity to leave the country for medical treatment, he returned to exile, this time for good.

As military dictators go, Musharraf could have been a lot worse. Pakistan under his rule was a relatively liberal place; he permitted reasonably free elections and pursued mostly peaceful policies – relations with India improved noticeably. Like a previous dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, whose career Musharraf’s parallels, he put his predecessor on trial, but unlike him he was content with having him exiled rather than executed.

Musharraf was also good at public relations: he came across as urbane, good-natured, even self-deprecating. While in office (and again when in exile) he appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. American policymakers, unenthusiastic about democracy in the first place, were easily persuaded that he was a valuable friend, even though at the same time his intelligence service was subsidising the Taliban and sheltering Osama bin Laden.

In fact, the narrative that Musharraf was a bulwark against Muslim extremism never made much sense (although it reappears in the Times obituary). His primary opponents were not the fundamentalists but secular democrats, principally Benazir Bhutto – daughter of the man that Zia had executed. Musharraf may or may not have been complicit in Bhutto’s 2007 assassination (another topic that the Times avoids), but at the least he bears some moral responsibility.

The Bush administration in the US, however, didn’t care about that. Having a military ruler in its corner, even equivocally, relieved it of the obligation to actually court public opinion in Pakistan. As I put it in 2008:

It’s hardly news that the alleged Bush/neocon crusade for democracy in the middle east is bogus, although the myth is still repeated in many places. But what Pakistan shows is the surprising degree to which the Bush administration is driven by actual hostility towards democracy: they don’t believe in it and don’t think it will work (at least for Muslims, although I suspect the problem is more general).

Pakistan since Musharraf’s departure has been groping its way towards a functioning democracy, but the military remains the final arbiter and the country’s problems seem as intractable as ever. An election later this year will pit current prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, brother of the leader that Musharraf overthrew in 1999, against his predecessor Imran Khan, elected in 2018 but removed last year in a vote of confidence after falling out with the military.

Khan now represents probably the closest thing to Musharraf’s tradition in Pakistani politics: a moderniser in the trappings, but close to the fundamentalists under the surface. But the most important (and difficult) task is to somehow wind back the influence of the military and return the country to civilian government in reality as well as in form.

That task has been made more difficult both by generals like Musharraf who developed a taste for politics, and also by western leaders who gave them support and encouragement.


2 thoughts on “Death of a scoundrel

  1. I have always taken the liberal-left-progressive line that freedom, democracy, progress and prosperity, are universal values, not just western ones, and that Arabs and Muslims, like everyone else, aspire to have them. I’m afraid I’m increasingly being forced to agree with those who say that these are in fact western values, based ultimately on Christianity, and that they cannot be exported – not to the Arab and Muslim worlds anyway. They have been reasonably successfully exported, in modified forms, to parts of East Asia and to India, but there is really no example anywhere of a long-term successful Arab democracy. On the rare occasions there have been free elections in Arab countries, they have been won by Islamists whose platform is essentially theocratic. Even in the non-Arab Muslim world, only Indonesia and Albania are functioning democracies, and Indonesia is now backsliding.

    Although, I agree with Charles’s belief that the ungovernability of the Arab world is a problem the Arabs will have to solve for themselves.


  2. As to what the Palestinian people need to do. First they and their friends in the west need to accept that Israel is completely military and economically dominant in the region, and as well has an unbreakable alliance with the world’s greatest military power. There is absolutely no way a rag-tag collection of militias can defeat Israel. All they can do is annoy it. Surely a century of wars, riots, intifadas and terrorism has been enough to demonstrate that. Nor will Israel be defeated, or even deflected, by votes at the UN or the BDS movement, which has had almost no impact on the Israeli economy.

    So if the Palestinians want a state, they can only have one on Israel’s terms. That means they must accept defeat, and do so publicly. Then they can enter direct negotiations and see what Israel will offer. Obviously under this Israeli government, that won’t be much, if anything. One day there will be an Israeli government more amenable to concessions – but only if and when the Israeli electorate is really convinced that the Palestinians have given up trying to kill them. That will probably take more than one Israeli electoral cycle.

    But since most Palestinian “resistance” is performative rather than guided by any rational strategy, I don’t expect any such thing to happen. And that suits Israel just fine, because the longer the Palestinians live in the fantasyland of “resistance,” the more complete the Jewish reclamation of Judaea and Samaria will become and the less possible it will be to create a viable Palestinian state.


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