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Change of faces makes no real difference in Pakistan

Zafar Bangash

The men in khaki in Pakistan have a habit of storming the citadels of power in the middle of the night. General Pervaiz Musharraf, the army chief and a commando to boot, literally dropped in from the sky. In Pakistan’s tortuous politics, the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister by the army chief on October 12 hardly came as a surprise. Still, events in Pakistan unfolded with great speed and left even the most informed highly bewildered.

As of October 14, no official announcement had been made about what the military intended to do next, but rumours -- and there is no shortage of those in Pakistan -- circulating in Islamabad said that Mian Azhar, a disgruntled member of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League who was dismissed as senior vice president of the party by Sharif last month, would head an interim government established under army tutelage. There were also reports that both Nawaz Sharif and president Rafiq Tarar, whom the army chief met late on October 13, had resigned.

The drama leading to the military takeover was surreal, as Sharif announced the dismissal of the army chief who, only 10 days earlier, had been elevated to the post of chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee and had his tenure extended until 2001. In a move that was characteristic of the deviousness of Pakistani politics, Musharraf’s dismissal was announced on State television as the general was returning from Sri Lanka. The PIA commercial flight on which he was travelling was refused permission to enter Pakistani airspace. For a tense half- hour, the plane circled overhead, and it was running out of fuel when it was finally able to land. It appears that the army chief had meanwhile established link with his generals on the ground, setting the coup in motion.

In his first televised address after Sharif’s dismissal, general Musharraf did not reveal much. He simply berated the former prime minister for his incompetence and leading the country to ruin. Few would disagree with that; the trouble is what comes next. It was obvious that the military had learned from its past mistakes and Musharraf made no promises of holding elections or returning the country to civilian rule within 90 days, as general Zia ul-Haq had done in 1977. The late military ruler was ridiculed throughout his life as his ‘90-day rule’ stretched over 11 years.

There are signs within Pakistan that a government of technocrats may be established, for a period of two years. Mirza Aslam Baig, a former army chief and leader of the Awami Qiadat party, said in a statement from Germany on October 13, that there would be an interim period of two years. There is also talk in Islamabad of an across-the-board accountability of all politicians. If this should come to pass, it would be welcomed by the people of Pakistan and would win the military much praise.

Sharif had become so unpopular that there were few voices of opposition to his overthrow. The disparate opposition parties were glad to see the last of him; even members of his own party welcomed the army’s intervention. The only voices of concern emanated from western capitals; some tut-tutted about democracy, but most were more concerned with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the “fundamentalists”.

Sharif’s days had appeared numbered since the July 4 accord over Kargil that he signed under US pressure in Washington. The Kargil episode will be remembered as one of the most humiliating Pakistan’s history, perhaps second only to the surrender of 90,000 Pakistani troops to the invading Indian army in Dhaka in December 1971. The Kashmiri mujahideen supported by the Pakistan army had captured the commanding heights of Kargil and bottled up some 30,000 Indian troops. Had Sharif not buckled under pressure to Washington and ordered their withdrawal, the ground situation in Kashmir may have been radically altered. Soon thereafter, opposition-led demonstrations erupted throughout the country. Differences of opinion also emerged with the army, as Sharif tried to shift the blame for the Kargil fiasco onto them. Even these cracks may have been papered over if Sharif had not overplayed his hand.

He is the architect of his own misfortune. In February 1997, Sharif had amassed a large majority in parliament; he used this to surreptitiously repeal the eighth amendment to the constitution, whereby the president had the power to dismiss the prime minister. By so doing, Sharif actually paved the way for military takeover. While the military’s dismissal of Sharif is unconstitutional, Abdul Hafiz Pirzada, the man who drafted the 1973 constitution, told the BBC world service on October 14, that ultimately the test of constitutionality rests upon the will of the people. The former law minister opined that since the people had welcomed Sharif’s dismissal, the army’s action appears to have legal cover.

That may be stretching the point a little; the simple fact is that he who wields the stick (or the gun) holds power in Pakistan. It is the military that is the ultimate arbiter of power in Pakistan. What Sharif was trying to do was to undercut the military by attempting to strike a deal with the Americans, whom he saw as the ultimate authority in Pakistan. The military saw through this and decided to act to show who is boss. In any case, the military has its own links with the US and a working relationship will no doubt be established.

Yet again, the political setup in Pakistan has been shown to be unworkable. Politicians of all stripes, whether in or out of uniform, are thoroughly corrupt. They use their time in power to plunder the country’s resources. While the ouster of every ruler, elected or otherwise, is greeted with joy by the masses, this proves short-lived as the newcomers begin their own plunder.

If the news of Sharif’s resignation is correct, the most likely explanation would be that a deal has been struck whereby he and his cronies will be allowed to get away with their plunder in return for not causing general Musharraf too many problems in whatever the army decides to do next. Among other things, Sharif and Tarar could decide not to challenge the legitimacy of the military takeover by accusing Musharraf of violating the constitution.

Pakistan’s tragedy is that while the masses yearn for an Islamic Revolution, all they get is one crook replacing another. The change is in fact no change at all. It simply another stage of Pakistan’s political musical chairs, with the army having decided that it is their turn in the top seat. It would be simplistic to place too much hope in the present change. It did not come about as a result of the promotion of any ideas, or the safeguarding of any principles; it is simply a matter of everyone trying to secure his own position. That is hardly cause for celebration.

Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 16

Rajab 06, 14201999-10-16

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