Sunday, May 13, 2007

Menace of a dictator to his critics: “We are not cowards …”

Pervez Musharraf, General of the Army and President (through a rigged election), is being challenged by widespread demonstrations in many parts of Pakistan. Lawyers and other members of the middle class are accusing him of abusing his power by attempting to destroy the career of the Chief Justice of the Supreme court – a man who has been willing, unlike his predecessors, to investigate “forced disappearances,” and even to consider whether it is legal for Musharraf to hold both offices, President, and General of the Army. Musharraf is showing himself to be, in all but name, a practicing Dictator. His statement to his opponents reeks with menace: “Do not challenge us. We are not cowards like you, we have the power of the people.”

A man who both heads the army, the institution that has from almost the beginning been the actual ruler of Pakistan, and who now pretends to hold office legitimately through a popular election, accuses those ordinary people of being cowardly who are willing to risk personal wellbeing, life, limb, career, by confronting Musharraf’s police and goons in the streets.

Those of us who look in from the outside can miss the menace in this situation. His statement, “Don’t challenge us,” “We have the power,” is coupled with police beatings of demonstrators, the murder of dozens (over 40 killed) in Karachi by goons of Musharraf’s party, Muttahida Quami Movement, as the police deliberately took no action against the shooters -- such affairs reveal the mechanisms of intimidation that shape Pakistani society. Together they “say” to those who oppose Musharraf, “I will do whatever necessary to crush any challenge to my regime, even from the middle-class.” To the lawyers they say, “I will beat and murder you until all public demonstration is quelled.” To those who act as judges they say, “I will take to task any of you who fails to legitimate my actions.” To those in the media who report on and take pictures of the brutality in the streets they say, “I can brutalize you as well as them, and I can ruin your investments.”

So where is the cowardice? Among those unarmed professional types willing to risk life and limb and career to insist on rule by law? Or with a dictator holed up in his presidential palace, protected by thousands of armed military personnel? This is a dictator who claims he has no control over the Islamists running armed camps in the tribal areas. At least he has the power to threaten and brutalize its own unarmed citizenry.

We cannot blame the ordinary people of Pakistan for the contradictory policies of this administration – jailing militant Islamists with much fanfare, releasing them quietly a few weeks later; claiming legitimacy to rule but brutalizing any popular movement against their control. The voters have demonstrated in previous elections only a tepid support for the Islamists (5 to 10 percent of their vote in the past). Pakistanis as a whole are not militant or radical. The problem lies with the leadership, who are too cowardly or perhaps too venal to give the Pakistani public what it craves: honest, courageous government.

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