By Tariq Ali
For anyone marinated in the history of Pakistan yesterday's
decision by the military to impose a state of emergency comes
as no surprise. Martial law in this country has become an antibiotic:
in order to obtain the same results one has to keep doubling the
doses. This was a coup within a coup.
General Pervez Musharraf ruled the country with a civilian façade,
but his power base was limited to the army. And it was the army
Chief of Staff who declared the emergency, suspended the 1973
constitution, took all non-government TV channels off the air,
jammed the mobile phone networks, surrounded the Supreme Court
with paramilitary units, dismissed the Chief Justice, arrested
the president of the bar association and inaugurated yet another
shabby period in the country's history.
Why? They feared that a Supreme Court judgment due next week
might make it impossible for Musharraf to contest the elections.
The decision to suspend the constitution was taken a few weeks
ago. According to good sources, contrary to what her official
spokesman has been saying ("she was shocked"), Benazir
Bhutto was informed and chose to leave the country before it happened.
(Whether her "dramatic return" was also pre-arranged
remains to be seen.) Intoxicated by the incense of power, she
might now discover that it remains as elusive as ever. If she
ultimately supports the latest turn it will be an act of political
suicide. If she decides to dump the general (she accused him last
night of breaking his promises), she will be betraying the confidence
of the US state department, which pushed her this way.
The two institutions targeted by the emergency are the judiciary
and the broadcasters, many of whose correspondents supply information
that politicians never give. Geo TV continued to air outside the
country. Hamid Mir, one of its sharpest journalists, said yesterday
he believed the US embassy had green-lighted the coup because
they regarded the Chief Justice as a nuisance and "a Taliban
The regime has been confronted with a severe crisis of legitimacy
that came to a head earlier this year when Musharraf's decision
to suspend the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Hussain Chaudhry, provoked
a six-month long mass movement that forced a government retreat.
Some of Chaudhry's judgments had challenged the government on
key issues such as "disappeared prisoners", harassment
of women and rushed privatisations. It was feared that he might
declare a uniformed president illegal.
The struggle to demand a separation of powers between the state
and the judiciary, which has always been weak, was of critical
importance. Pakistan's judges have usually been acquiescent. Those
who resisted military leaders were soon bullied out of it, so
the decision of this chief justice to fight back was surprising,
but extremely important and won him enormous respect. Global media
coverage of Pakistan suggests a country of generals, corrupt politicians
and bearded lunatics. The struggle to reinstate the Chief Justice
presented a different snapshot of the country.
The Supreme Court's declaration that the new dispensation was
"illegal and unconstitutional" was heroic, and, by contrast,
the hurriedly sworn in new Chief Justice will be seen for what
he is: a stooge of the men in uniform. If the constitution remains
suspended for more than three months then Musharraf may be pushed
aside by the army and a new strongman installed. Or it could be
that the aim was limited to cleansing the Supreme Court and controlling
the media. In which case a rigged January election becomes a certainty.
Whatever the case, Pakistan's long journey to the end of the