|Benazir Bhutto tests Pervez Musharraf’s strength
Christina Lamb and Dean Nelson in Islamabad, Sunday Times, London, 11 November 2007
BENAZIR BHUTTO last night demanded that General Pervez Musharraf step down and insisted that any hope of an understanding with him was now “finished”.
“By suspending the constitution and declaring a state of emergency he reneged on his promises to us,” Pakistan’s former prime minister declared. “Any understanding between us is now finished.”
In a late night telephone interview with The Sunday Times, Bhutto sounded tired but elated after what she described as “another long day”. She spoke of her outrage at Musharraf’s acts of the past week that have plunged the country into crisis.
“I feel absolutely shocked that we have these year-long negotiations and we agree to work together, then he turns around and suspends the constitution,” she said. “I have to wonder if he was ever serious.
“It wasn’t as if he had no alternative. Why did he do this when he could have carried on with the road map toward democracy agreed with the country’s biggest political party?”
His actions, Bhutto said, had forced her to call people out into the streets, something she had been eager to avoid for fear of bloodshed. It was to prevent this, she said, that she had agreed the deal which saw him dropping corruption charges against her, enabling her to return home last month after 8Å years in exile.
“Now he’s left us no choice but to call out the people,” she said. “I face a difficult predicament. I’ve long been worried about creeping Talibanisation in Pakistan and if I don’t take the lead then there may well be extremist elements that take advantage. So I have no choice.”
Bhutto insisted that the only way to avoid violence is for Musharraf to step down. “He’s put himself into a corner and it’s of his own making,” she said.
“His two trump cards were the international community and the army. Now he’s losing both. The only option he has is to step aside and hand power to an interim government of national consensus that will oversee elections. His time is up.”
On Friday, under international pressure, Musharraf announced that he would hold elections by February 15. Yesterday Malik Mohammed Qayyum, the attorney-general, told reporters that the state of emergency would “end within one month”. But Bhutto dismissed these assurances. “It would be impossible to have elections in these circumstances where both the courts and the election commission are in his control,” she said.
Musharraf’s declaration of what amounted to martial law, arresting thousands, locking up judges and taking television stations off the air, has seen Bhutto transformed from someone doing a deal with a dictator into a woman — and mother — prepared to sacrifice everything for democracy.
She vowed to go ahead with the three-day Long March planned for this week from Lahore to Islamabad, despite further warnings of assassination attempts such as the suicide bombs that killed 140 people during her return to Karachi three weeks ago. The march will bring her into all-out confrontation with the regime.
“I know there are risks for my personal safety but I have to look at the bigger picture,” she said.
“Pakistan is facing the threat of disintegration. One by one the tribal areas have fallen to [the] Taliban and now they are advancing further into the northwest frontier. With an unrepresentative government and an army that is leaderless and rudderless, Pakistan is facing its most serious threat since 1971 [when the country split into two].”
However, the government insisted that the march would be blocked. “All marches, processions and political gatherings are banned at the moment, so I’m afraid the march has been outlawed,” said Tariq Azim, the information minister who was once an ally of Bhutto.
“We are committed to upholding the law and it must be applied equally for everyone, including Benazir Bhutto.”
Bhutto said she would not be deterred. “Even if they block it, it’s like a strike call because it paralyses the whole area. Either way they lose and we win. If they don’t interrupt it we show the numbers we can get out. If they do bring out all those police and teargassing, it still brings everything to a standstill and shows the numbers we would have had.”
Bhutto was speaking from her home in Islamabad after spending the day building up pressure on Musharraf with a series of high-profile visits around the Pakistani capital, constantly trailed by the microphones and lenses of the international media.
First she met non-governmental organisations and local journalists banned from reporting current events and protesting against new laws which impose jail sentences on anyone who criticises Musharraf. She also kept up international pressure on the government by holding a meeting with diplomats last night.
For the most part Bhutto seemed able to move unimpeded. The freedom of movement she is enjoying, while authorities admit that they have arrested more than 3,000 people, had prompted speculation that she might still be in negotiations with Musharraf.
However, Bhutto insisted that there is no contact between the two sides and that it is because of her high international profile that Musharraf has not arrested her. “The international interest in Pakistan is giving me more security, although at the same time it’s made me a bigger target for assassins,” she said.
It is increasingly hard to see a way out for Musharraf. Bhutto’s call for millions to join the march has alarmed senior military officers. It is widely believed that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Musharraf’s deputy chief of army staff, is unhappy about the emergency. He is being touted as the man to topple Musharraf and hand the government back to civilian politicians.
“Musharraf is making one bad decision after another,” said Bhutto. “First there were the peace agreements with the Taliban in the tribal areas, then the dismissal of the chief justice . . . now all this is coming home to roost. The only answer is for him to move aside.”
The last time Bhutto announced a Long March — in 1993, against the government of Nawaz Sharif and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, then president — she never needed to take a step. The night before the march, Khan resigned and called elections.
“That would be nice,” she said last night.