Monday, November 12, 2007

Musharraf's true colors: Should he be subject to law?

Once in a while an apparently ordinary institution that is the actual mechanism of social control in a society reveals its true character. The violent attacks on the demonstrating monks in Myanmar last September demonstrated how far the military junta will go to suppress all dissent in the face of international condemnation and sanctions. And the seizure of the vital instruments of public expression in Pakistan by General Pervez Musharraf on November 3 demonstrates a desperate grasp for control despite rising opposition. The measures taken – replacing the Supreme Court with compliant judges who recognize his new regime, shutting down all independent and international television stations, imprisoning hundreds of notables, warning the public against demonstrations – expose the actual nature of his regime: it is a dictatorship.

But like all dictators General Musharraf craves legitimacy and so deploys the international language of legitimacy, “democracy”, to justify what he does. Musharraf calls his new powers a “provisional constitutional order” whose purpose is to limit “terrorist attacks” and “preserve the democratic transition that I initiated eight years back.” “Limit terrorism”, “preserve democracy” – these are the terms a regime must deploy to justify the exercise of power in the contemporary world. Emphasizing the justness of his act for the benefit of his American sponsors, Musharraf cited Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of citizen’s rights during the Civil War. And with a bizarre irony he said yesterday, of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whom Musharraf accuses of corruption, “Nobody is above the law.”

Except the dictator himself. His dramatic move was prompted by the imminent likelihood that the Supreme Court would rule against his bid to be elected President while holding military office. Musharraf pre-emptively turned the tables on the Court, accusing it of undermining the democratic process that he had “initiated.” Rather than promoting democracy, he says, the Court has stood against the democratization project, demoralized Pakistan’s security forces, weakened the struggle against terrorism, and slowed the advance of democracy. So his assumption of power was, like his first coup d’etat, a move to protect a “democratic” process in Pakistan.

It is the measures taken against the Supreme Court and the leaders of the opposition that expose how non-democratic his coup is: police surrounded the homes of the Supreme Court justices, blocked journalists from access to them, disconnected telephone lines, and jammed local cell phones. Moreover, Musharraf demanded that all justices under the new regime grant him the “constitutional” authority to rule, and that the media never subject him or his administration to ridicule or disrepute. Such measures bear no resemblance to the “democracy” that he espouses. He has replaced a constitutional system with a dictatorship.

It is easy to condemn such behavior; the contradictions and hypocrisy are transparent. But no society is immune from it, for power holders, even in the West, wrap their behavior in moralistic terms. Claiming to struggle against terror, to act in the public interest, to stand for virtue and truth and against corruption, political figures give themselves legitimacy, even as some may be inclined to exploit the sinews of power to their own advantage, spinning their own “truth” so as to win public support and acceptance in the community of nations. In its blatant form the fundamental maxim is simple: do what you must in order to hold power, and enshrine your behavior with moralisms like “human rights”, “the war on terror”, and “democracy”. No one is immune to such devices, for the fundamental source is a universal human weakness, hubris.

Musharraf is turning out to be a pathetic figure after all, for his ego may have outrun reality. Public outrage was immediate and has not abated. Thousands of lawyers are demonstrating in the streets at the risk brutal beatings by the police. Benazir Bhutto promises to bring out her followers in a few days. And Musharraf’s attempts to muzzle all opposition have apparently failed: Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, though house-bound, gave an address via telephone to the crowds of lawyers demonstrating on his behalf; human rights advocate Asma Jahangir, despite house arrest, immediately published a critique of the Musharraf coup for the Independent. The question now seems to be how long Musharraf can hold on, assuming he does not resort to the full-scale brutality of the Myanmar military junta. Eventually, even he will have to be subjected to the law of the land.

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