Last Monday, two days after Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan, I drove around Islamabad in search of Musharraf supporters. As police beat and arrested the president's political opponents, the country's elite was becoming increasingly restive, and even people on the street sounded annoyed. Shopkeepers complained about slow business,the government had shut down more than ten private TV channels, and cell service was spotty. Then I arrived at the Christian slum near my house, where I met a 28-year-old man named Javed. "Musharraf is still a good man, and he is very nice to us," Javed said in broken English. Behind us, filthy children played in piles of dirt, a dog rummaged through an overfilled dumpster, and a large red cross stood on the roof of a church. "Every Sunday, Musharraf sends two or three policemen to come here and guard the church while we pray," said Javed. And during the regime of his predecessor, Nawaz Sharif? "Sharif shut down the Christian ghettos and tried to make Pakistan an Islamic state."Musharraf overthrew Sharif in a coup eight years ago, and he is fond of boasting that he saved Pakistan from becoming a failed state. He is partly right. Sharif, in his final days, presided over a stifled press, a subservient judiciary, and a tanking economy. Musharraf is hardly a democrat, and, with the state of emergency, the Western press has focused almost exclusively on his dictatorial streak. But, in fairness, Musharraf's regime has modernized and liberalized Pakistan in ways that no military general or secular leader had done before. The irony of the past few days is that Musharraf's liberalization has facilitated the current unrest, and the tragedy is that, in responding, Musharraf has brought Pakistan back to where it was when he first seized power.
The night that Musharraf decreed the state of emergency, I met with one of his top advisers, a Georgetown-educated journalist turned politician named Mushahid Hussain. Local newspapers had quoted Hussain in the preceding weeks as a firm opponent of Musharraf taking extra-constitutionalsteps to stay in power. A journalist friend of mine refers to Hussain as "the good angel sitting on one of Musharraf's shoulders." On Saturday night, he looked sad, exhausted, and resigned. Hussain had spent eight years working on Musharraf's image and program of "enlightened moderation." Now he watched Musharraf abandon any pretensions he might have had to being anything more than a military dictator. "Pakistan is not Myanmar. We have a robust civil society, a vibrant media, and an independent judiciary. But, by this action, the chief of army staff"-- Hussain called Musharraf by his military title, subtly disassociating himself from his boss--"will end up presiding over the liquidation of his own legacy."
The Burma analogy fits because the Pakistani Army seems unwilling to give up power, but the better comparison may be to pre-Revolutionary Iran. Last month, Gary Sick, who headed the Iran desk at the National Security Council during the Carter administration, wrote that "the U.S. [is] locked in much the same kind of policy vise that bedeviled the U.S. in Iran. We have bet the farm on one man- -in this case Pervez Musharraf--and we have no fall back position, no alternative strategy in the event that does notwork." By comparing Washington's relationship with the Shah during the late 1970s to its relationship with Musharraf today, Sick clearly intended to highlight the strategic danger to the United States of backing an unpopular leader. But the analogy also illuminates what is happening inside Pakistan.
The Shah revolutionized Iranian society during the 1970s. Backed by huge in flows of U.S. aid, the Shah put Iran on track to becoming a modern, potentially liberal nation. Women wore miniskirts in the streets of Tehran, the Iranian army grew to being the fifth-largest in the world, and the middle class, made up mostly of conservative merchants, flourished. When the revolution gathered momentum, the emboldened merchant classes led the way. They, and Ayatollah Khomeini's mullahs, railed against the Shah's "intoxication" with the West and demanded that women cover their legs, arms, and heads--or else. The army,despite its size and technical strength,finally refused to fire on its own people.
Musharraf has similarly revolutionized contemporary Pakistan, all in the name of "enlightened moderation." The economy has been growing at more than 7 percent annually, and, a few years ago, BusinessWeek called the Karachi Stock Exchange the best-performing market in the world. In 2006, Musharraf passed the Women's Protection Bill, which amended a draconian law that had criminalized adultery and non-marital sex--and sanctioned stoning for violators. And, earlier this year, Musharraf opened the National Art Gallery in Islamabad--34 years, and six governments, after it was proposed. Rohail Hyatt, one of Pakistan's leading rock stars, once praised Musharraf for allowing the arts to thrive: "We are a country that forgets ... but Musharraf has steered us out of severe crisis."
And yet, in the process, much like the Shah, Musharraf has unwittingly unleashed the forces that may lead to his demise. When Musharraf took power in 1999, there was one news channel, state-run Pakistan Television. Today, there are so many private news channels that I didn't even know some of them existed until Musharraf blocked them out on Saturday night, leaving a snowy void where there should have been a newscaster. Musharraf clearly recognizes this irony: In his address to the nation on November 3, he blamed the private TV channels for contributing to "this downslide, this negative thinking, this negative projection" of Pakistan.
The protesters, too, acknowledge that Musharraf has enabled them--even as he has provoked them. In March, when Musharraf tried to sack Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, on flimsy charges of nepotism, the legal community protested until Chaudhry was finally restored to his post. As the lawyers returned to the streets, dressed in their signature black suits and white shirts, I attended a protest march in Islamabad and afterward met Shakeel Mian, a 33-year-old advocate with a mustache and a comb-over hairstyle. I asked him if the lawyers' movement would have even been possible under another regime. Mian said that he, the lawyers, and Musharraf all agreed in promoting a secular, modern Pakistan. "Every time we march, we are validating the viewpoint of President Musharraf when he talks about 'enlightened moderation,'" Mian said. "But for the independence of the judiciary, we have no choice but to revolt."
Musharraf cited two reasons for imposing what Mushahid Hussain calls "de facto martial law": rising terrorism and extremism, and judicial activism. As of Thursday, however, police had rounded up thousands of lawyers and opposition politicians, but there was no sign of any impending crackdown on the Taliban militias steadily gaining ground near the Afghan border. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, president of the ruling, pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League, told The Washington Post that Musharraf has no plans for a military operation against the Taliban, explaining that the decision to impose a state of emergency was motivated by a case in the Supreme Court that was about to declare Musharraf ineligible to serve as president--not by terrorism. (When I interviewed him personally four days later, he denied making any such statement; Musharraf's press team, inall likelihood, didn't appreciate his candor earlier in the week.) Last week, pro-Taliban militants in the Northwest Frontier Province overran several police stations and took control of a town.
The Islamists hate Musharraf for kowtowing to America--the same reason that Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts detested, and later toppled, the Shah. But the Islamist political parties aren't strong enough to chase Musharraf out of office alone. Liaquat Baloch, a vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party with seats in the National Assembly, admitted as much when he told me about his party's plan of attack: "We are not in this for a solo flight. This is the matter of getting the whole nation involved." And the ones to really worry about, the Taliban-inspired gangs taking over the Northwest Frontier Province, are not about to march on Islamabad and steal power.
At least, not yet. After living in Pakistan for almost two years and travelingto all parts of the country meeting some of the nastiest Islamists around, I had my first encounter with visceral anti-Americanism on Saturday night, an hour after the State of Emergency was declared. I was walking from one side ofa police cordon, back into a crowd of anti-Musharraf protesters, when a tall man with a long beard called out from 15 feet away, berating me and accusing me of being a CIA agent. "America is destroying a nation of one hundred and sixty million people to save one person!" he yelled.
I looked back at the line of riot police and wondered if they were going to come to my rescue. But I didn't fault the man with the beard; even though the White House has criticized Musharraf in the last few days, they have spent the past six years telling Musharraf that he could do no wrong. I just wondered how many American journalists faced a similar barrage in the months before the Shah fled Iran.
Nicholas Schmidle is a freelance journalist and Pakistan-based fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.