ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Gen. Pervez Musharraf is a man accustomed to getting his way, and for nearly eight years as this country’s formidably powerful ruler, he almost always has.
But on March 9, his fortunes abruptly changed when the country’s chief justice refused to resign under government pressure.
Musharraf has gone on to endure a spectacular series of disappointments that have left him isolated from his friends and dependent on his enemies if he wants to stay in office. With his country in turmoil, caught between democracy and autocracy, between radical Islam and secular moderation, the nation’s president and army chief is locked in a struggle just to survive.
Critics — and, increasingly, supporters — say Musharraf has only himself to blame. His habit of postponing tough decisions, they say, has finally caught up with him.
“The situation is going from bad to worse for Pervez Musharraf,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst. “And the pressures are only increasing.”
At the moment, those pressures include an invigorated insurgency by al-Qaeda and Taliban militants who have vowed to oust Musharraf in favor of a hard-line theocracy. From the other direction, he faces an energetic pro-democracy movement that is itching for the chance to send Musharraf and his fellow generals back to their barracks. And from the United States, he faces growing doubts that he is up to the task of eliminating alleged terrorist havens on Pakistani soil.
The conflicting pressures are taking their toll. In four months, Musharraf’s approval rating in Pakistan dropped 20 points, down to 34 percent as of early July, according to an opinion poll released last week by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. government-funded nonprofit that promotes democracy around the world. It was the first time since the survey was first conducted in 2002 that the percentage of Pakistani respondents approving of Musharraf had fallen below half.
The former commando prides himself on an ability to escape difficult circumstances, and it is possible he will find a way to emerge this time as well. At the moment, his hope for salvation comes from an unexpected source. He traveled to the United Arab Emirates recently to meet with a longtime nemesis, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and those close to him say agreeing to share power with her might be his best option for political survival.
Even that is fraught with risk. Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup in 1999, is up for reelection by Parliament this fall, and if the deal with Bhutto collapses at the last minute, it is unclear whether he will have the necessary support to win another term.
If the deal does go through, he faces the prospect of trying to govern with a woman he has decried as “corrupt” and representative of the “sham democracy” that preceded his tenure.
For her part, Bhutto has repeatedly called Musharraf “a military dictator” and has pointedly said she will not ink any deal unless he resigns as army chief. Musharraf’s supporters say he probably will have to, even though his status in the army is seen as his primary source of influence.
“I would expect that around New Year’s Day, you’ll see General Pervez Musharraf transformed into Mr. Pervez Musharraf, with a designer suit rather than the khaki uniform he has worn for the past 43 years,” said Mushahid Hussain, a top leader in Musharraf’s party.
“This has been a chastening experience,” Hussain added. “General Musharraf has had a good run for eight years. He has been offered another five years — but without the absolute authority he once exercised.”
In some ways, Hussain said, Musharraf is a victim of his own success. He has presided over a period of greater prosperity for an emerging middle class. He has also allowed a proliferation of media outlets.
But when Musharraf tried in March to get rid of the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, lawyers revolted, and middle-class Pakistanis joined what evolved into a mass movement against the president, and for the restoration of democracy.
Chaudhry toured the country like a rock star, visiting city after city and speaking to festive crowds about the dangers of despotism. A popular song directed at Musharraf emerged and became the movement’s theme music:
Your time is at an end
There’s no choice but to say goodbye
Haven’t you gobbled up enough already?
Broken the constitution with your own two hands
Go home with some dignity, why don’t you?
The media followed Chaudhry’s campaign minute by minute, with the coverage becoming so critical that the government tried to block it.
Musharraf’s top aides had insisted Chaudhry was suspended because of improprieties. But critics said the real reason was that he had exhibited an independent streak that worried Musharraf as the general attempted to have himself reelected by an expiring Parliament, while also keeping his uniform.
Musharraf said at one point that he would “cry” if Chaudhry got his job back, but when the Supreme Court reinstated the judge late last month, there was little the president could do but accept the decision.
Chaudhry is now in position to block Musharraf’s plans — including his bid to win a new term from a Parliament that was elected five years ago in balloting marred by irregularities.
“Lawfully, he can do it. But morally, the Parliament’s at the end of its term,” said Ishaq Khan Khakwani, a government minister and member of Musharraf’s party. “How can it elect him again?”
Khakwani said he suggested to Musharraf a year ago that he hold parliamentary elections in March 2007, and then win a fresh term from the new legislature. With Musharraf’s popularity running high, Khakwani argued, he would emerge even stronger.
But the president was in no mood for the idea, several government insiders said, because he worried new elections could dilute his power.
“He made a mistake,” Khakwani said.
Delays have also hurt Musharraf in his battle against rising militancy in Pakistan, critics say. His handling of the standoff at the pro-Taliban Red Mosque in Islamabad seemed to illustrate the problem: Through months of provocations by the mosque’s radical clerics, Musharraf watched and waited. By the time he decided to take action, the clerics’ followers had built up a fearsome arsenal and were prepared for a fight. During a nine-day siege in July, the neighborhood around the mosque became a war zone as security forces nightly traded intense fire with militants holed up inside. When the smoke cleared following a decisive raid, more than 100 people were dead — including a dozen elite army commandos.
The end of the standoff brought a wave of attacks that claimed more than 200 lives, with suicide bombers striking a variety of targets, including a political rally in Islamabad and a mosque at an army base. It also coincided with the breakdown of a cease-fire in North Waziristan that had once been the centerpiece of Musharraf’s strategy for containing the Taliban threat. Although the 10-month-old deal officially died in July, observers of the tribal region along the border with Afghanistan had long said it wasn’t working.
U.S. officials also have grown increasingly concerned that the area is being used as a sanctuary for al-Qaeda fighters. Still, Musharraf clung to the deal.
“If you say one lie, you have to say 10 more to cover that first one,” said retired Brig. Mehmood Shah, for years a top government official in the tribal areas. “They called it a good agreement, and they went all the way to Washington to say so. They could not then turn around and say that it wasn’t.”
The unrest has not ended. Last week, radical fighters took over a shrine in northwestern Pakistan and renamed it Lal Masjid — Red Mosque.
The government brushes off concerns that the recent wave of violence could be the start of a much larger conflagration that will engulf Pakistan. “What we’ve seen here is a reaction to the Lal Masjid,” Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said in an interview last week. “We predicted it. We expected it. We’re dealing with it.”
Others are not so sure, pointing to the Taliban’s enhanced ability to assert control over broad swaths of territory. “Looking at the past few months, I see that Musharraf is the biggest loser,” said Afzal Khan, a senior opposition politician in the northwestern area of Swat. “The militants are the biggest winners.”
Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.Top