|Bhutto Fights Back
By Ron Moreau and Fasih Ahmed | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Nov 7, 2007 | Updated: 2:15 p.m. ET Nov 7, 2007
Whether Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf can successfully maintain the emergency rule he imposed last weekend largely depends on Benazir Bhutto. With her well-organized, grass-roots Pakistan People’s Party firmly behind her, she is the only opposition political leader who has the potential clout to stand up to the four-star army general. But until Wednesday it seemed unlikely she would challenge him. In light of her return from exile less than one month ago on the back of a sweetheart political deal she had struck with the president, few Pakistanis expected her to jeopardize that arrangement, which granted her amnesty from a host of corruption charges, by taking a firm stand. While she denounced the emergency when it was announced, most people expected her to meet with the president this week in the capital in an effort to convince him to soften his stand.
They were dead wrong. To almost everyone’s surprise, and certainly to Musharraf’s, she threw down the gauntlet, issuing a set of hard-line nonnegotiable demands that were effectively a declaration of war if he didn’t comply. At a packed press conference at her modest party headquarters in the capital she gave him until Nov. 15, the end of his current presidential term, to lift the emergency, restore the constitution, resign from the army, release the several thousand people detained so far, lift the newly imposed media bans, and firmly set Jan. 15 as the last day to hold free and fair general elections. Otherwise, she said, she was going to the streets. Bhutto said she would lead a 220-mile “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad on Nov. 13 if Musharraf didn’t cave in. For starters, she called for an antigovernment rally that she would attend this Friday. “I appeal to the people of Pakistan to come forward,” she said wearing a white headscarf and a black dress embroidered with sequins. “We are under attack.”
Bhutto said she was making these demands “to save the country.” The danger came largely from Musharraf’s authoritarian ways, she said, adding that she had negotiated in good faith with Musharraf for a return to democracy but had been betrayed. “We find ourselves back in a dictatorship that is breeding extremism,” she said. “The country is endangered by extremism.” She charged that “an organized minority had seized control of the levers of the state,” including officials who had connections to extremists going way back to the Afghan mujahedin war against the Soviets, which boosted such radicals as Osama bin Laden. These unnamed men in the government and the intelligence agencies, she went on, were behind the assassination attempt against her last month, when her motorcade was hit by a huge explosion as it was traveling through a sea of supporters on the day she arrived from eight years in exile, killing some 190.
Despite the dangers, she said she was determined to lead the anti-emergency rally next Friday in the army garrison city of Rawalpindi, even though the local authorities have not authorized the demonstration and even if she risked being arrested or worse. “I understand my liberty may be at stake,” she said, “but my country is more important.” The stakes in nuclear-armed Pakistan, she added, were much higher. “Imagine if a nuclear-armed country implodes?” she asked.
She also pointedly accused the government of not seriously investigating the assassination attempt against her. “I know more about what happened in that bomb blast than they do,” she said, referring to the government. She claimed that her own investigators had found that the bomb that was aimed at killing her was not carried by a willing suicide bomber, but was a baby that had been wired with explosives. Someone in the crowd was trying to hand the baby onto the truck she was traveling in when it exploded, she said. The government counters that a lone suicide bomber, probably from the lawless tribal area, caused the carnage.
She also appealed to the armed forces that at least until now have staunchly backed its chief of army staff, Gen. Musharraf, and his crackdown. She said the unity of Pakistan was at stake and so was that of the military as a result of the extremism that his rule had created and failed to contain in the frontier areas bordering on Afghanistan where Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistani tribal militants enjoy a safe haven. Democracy, not more authoritarianism, was the answer, she said.