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Military coup brings short-term relief but little long-term hope to Pakistan’s weary people

Zafar Bangash

It is reflective of the bankruptcy of the political system in Pakistan that the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif, the ‘elected’ prime minister of ‘heavy mandate’ fame, should be greeted with relief – even joy – rather than protests by Pakistan’s people. A Gallup poll on October 14, two days after army chief general Pervez Musharraf took control, indicated 75 percent of Pakistan’s people supported the army’s action. The general appointed himself ‘chief executive’ instead of chief martial law administrator - the title used by Zia ul-Haq - to avoid the harsh image of a military dictator.

In a televised address five days later, general Musharraf outlined his programme, saying that the army has no desire to stay in power any longer than “absolutely necessary.” He announced a seven-point agenda which won broad support from the weary public: the restoration of national confidence, building a strong federation, reviving the economy, maintaining law and order and delivering speedy justice, depoliticisation of State institutions, devolution of power to the provinces, and across-the-board accountability.

The economy, law and order, and the accountability of politicians and public officials are the most pressing concerns facing Pakistan today. Soaring prices, a growing culture of lawlessness, and sectarian violence have made life miserable for ordinary people. These have been compounded by rampant corruption at all levels of government and administration. All previous regimes, however, made similar promises, including the one just ousted. Not only did they fail to address these problems, but they were themselves guilty of many of the same offences. Why this one should do any better is not immediately clear.

General Musharraf also announced the establishment of a six-member National Security Council (NSC), under his command, which includes the chiefs of the navy and the air force plus experts on law, finance, the economy, and national and foreign affairs. He also said that a private think-tank would be set up to advise a small cabinet made up of technocrats operating under the NSC. To reassure critics, he insisted that the constitution had not been abrogated, only suspended; but he gave no timetable for how long this arrangement would last. Given his agenda, it is safe to assume that the military is there for a long haul.

That Nawaz Sharif had lost all credibility was clear to everyone in Pakistan, but it seems that western leaders either could not see the reality or refused to do so, since they continued to parrot the mantra about the ‘restoration’ of democracy. There was no democracy in Pakistan; Sharif’s dictatorial style of governance, coupled with his limited abilities, had long since alienated large segments of the population, including many members of his own ruling Muslim League Party. This explains why there were no protests at his forced departure, even though it was unconstitutional.

No political leader in Pakistan ever started in more favourable circumstances than Sharif, and no politician ever squandered his opportunities more recklessly. He had a massive majority in parliament (notwithstanding the derisory 25 percent voter turnout in the February 1997 elections), which he used to force through a string of constitutional amendments, including the notorious change to Article 58(2)B, by which the powers of the president to dismiss the prime minister were removed. Far from securing his position, this paved the way for military intervention, given the political uncertainty that engulfs Pakistan every two or three years.

Once in power, Sharif adopted a confrontational style of political action. The minor opposition parties were hounded; an unnecessary war was started with the judiciary, with his party stalwarts storming the supreme court building while the court was in session; and both the chief justice and the president were forced to resign. But he launched one battle too many when he took on the military, which proved more adept at fighting than Sharif. Despite his incompetence, he refused to seek advice, except from ‘Abaji’ (his father) and his foul-mouthed younger brother Shahbaz Sharif. And when he found that the political ground was slipping from under his feet at home after the Kargil fiasco last summer, he rushed to seek America’s support hoping to be saved from political oblivion.

Since August, a string of Sharif emissaries had visited Washington promising everything under the sun in return for America’s support to keep him in power. In September, lieutenant-general Ziauddin Butt, director of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (whom Sharif nominated to replace general Pervez Musharraf as chief of army staff shortly before the coup) had held detailed meetings with the CIA and warned them about the ‘fundamentalist’ influence in the military. He had also warned about the growing threat of ‘Talibanisation’ in Pakistan. Curtailing both has been a major US preoccupation. Sharif’s emissaries promised to safeguard America’s interests if Pakistan’s powerful military were kept in check. When the crunch came, the Americans could not bail him out.

What Sharif failed to take into account was that the US has gradually lost influence in Pakistan since 1990. The Pressler amendment, which is Pakistan-specific, prohibits military and economic aid to Islamabad as punishment for its nuclear programme. After the Indian nuclear explosions in May 1998, which Pakistan was forced to match, the US imposed additional sanctions. These hurt Pakistan more than India. Remaining in America’s good books is a major priority for Pakistan’s ruling elites, but their incentives for obeying Uncle Sam were diminished.

Musharraf’s coup, on October 12, occurred in bizarre circumstances. His dismissal was announced by State television on while the army chief was in the air, returning from an official visit to Sri Lanka. Sharif attempted to prevent Musharraf’s plane ï a commercial PIA plane with 200 passengers on board ï from landing at Karachi airport. Troops loyal to Musharraf immediately went into action, taking over the control tower at Karachi airport to allow the plane to land; by this time it had barely seven minutes’ fuel left. The coup was then set in motion by the 111th Brigade of the 10th Corps, stationed at the parliament building in Islamabad, which remains on 24-hour alert presumably for this very purpose. Within hours, Sharif was history.

The attempted sacking of Musharraf may have been the immediate cause of the coup, but there were other reasons as well. Sharif was trying to create dissension within the ranks of the military by appointing his favourite generals, some related to his party members, to key posts. This, together with his plans to create a private militia in the manner of the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Federal Security Force in the seventies, proved his undoing. One senator from the Frontier Province has been arrested and another is being sought in connection with smuggling arms into the Punjab for use by the militia, which presumably was intended to take on the army in case of a showdown. The army does not tolerate interference in its affairs and protects its interests vigorously.

The state of emergency, declared in May 1998 after the nuclear explosions, has been extended. The national and provincial assemblies have been suspended, but the courts have been asked to continue to function, albeit with the advice of the new chief executive under a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO). The president, Rafiq Tarar, has also agreed to stay on in the presidency, albeit in splendid isolation from his former allies in the Sharif camp (Tarar is known as a close friend of Sharif’s Abaji). The bank accounts of leading politicians and their spouses have also been frozen to prevent the flight of capital.

The existing political setup in Pakistan has repeatedly been shown to be unworkable. Politicians of all persuasions are thoroughly corrupt. They use their time in power to plunder the country’s resources, and their removals from power are invariably greeted with joy by Pakistan’s masses. But this euphoria is always short-lived, as the newcomers begin their own plunder. Will the newest administration prove any different? The oppressed masses of Pakistan desperately hope so, but past experience does not inspire optimism.

Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 17

Rajab 22, 14201999-11-01

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