Musharraf in troubled waters Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2007 7:39 AM
Categories: Islamabad, Pakistan
By NBC Newsí Fakhar ur-Rehman and Carol Grisanti in Islamabad
Pakistanís Pervez Musharraf has long been a true political survivor. In the eight years since he seized power in a military coup and pursued a vision for a non-theological Islamic state, he has endured three assassination attempts as well as weathering many political storms -- from the opposition parties, Islamic parties and even from within his own political base.
But he may now have picked a fight he cannot win.
His decision on March 9 to suspend the Supreme Courtís chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, on allegations of misconduct has unleashed a crisis that has left his regime struggling to survive as it faces a countrywide pro-democracy movement, with Chaudhry becoming a touchstone for those who want to see an end to military rule.
"Go Musharraf Go!" shouted the thousands gathered outside the Pakistan Supreme Court building in the nationís capital, Islamabad, last Saturday night.
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely," warned Chaudhry, quoting the 19th century English historian Lord Acton in a 25-minute speech against military dictatorship.
The protests against Musharraf have become more widespread and more violent -- plunging the country into the worst political crisis it has seen since the army seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.
More than 40 people were killed in Karachi, Pakistanís largest city and financial hub, when Chaudhry tried to address the local bar association. Most Pakistanis blame Musharraf and his political allies for the carnage.
Lead-up to the dismissal
A well-placed intelligence source who was privy to the lead-up to Chaudhryís dismissal said that the removal of the chief justice came "because he had annoyed those who matter in the intelligence ranks and among the police."
The same source, who requested anonymity, added that Chaudhry "had passed down judgments and questioned the authority of the intelligence agencies in the cases of missing persons."
Hundreds of people have disappeared in Pakistan, many of them picked up by Pakistanís powerful intelligence agents and kept in secret detention centers, critics charge. These same people say the government has exploited the current anti-terrorism climate to get rid of those who they deem to be enemies of the state.
As chief justice, Chaudhry had started investigations and called the governmentís actions a "violation of fundamental human rights."
"When I was arrested and taken into a torture cell," said one recently released prisoner who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "intelligence guys were saying that this chief justice couldnít rule against them. The moment he does, he will be out of his job."
But it was not just the anger of Pakistanís spies that cost Chaudhry his job, observers say. Many believe that Musharraf saw the former chief justice as someone who would challenge his plans to run for re-election later this year.
On February 24, just two weeks before he was dismissed, Chaudhry was asked whether it was constitutional for Musharraf to seek re-election as president. He responded, "I will decide according to the law and the constitution." Apparently, that was not the response Musharraf was looking for.
Verdict still out
Not everyone is counting Musharraf out yet. Many Pakistanis think that he will weather this storm, primarily because he has the backing of the United States government.
"The U.S. will continue to support President Musharraf because there is no substitute for him in the army who can, and will, give the kind of support the U.S. wants in the war on terror," said Lt. General Hamid Javed, formerly Pakistanís Secretary of Defense.
And even more important are the top generals at home. The very powerful Pakistan Army Corp commanders are still with Musharraf. As long as they don't withdraw their support his grip on power seems assured.