NOV. 3, 2007, will be remembered as the blackest day in the history of Pakistan. Let us be perfectly clear: Pakistan is a military dictatorship. Last Saturday, Gen. Pervez Musharraf removed all pretense of a transition to democracy by conducting what was in effect yet another extraconstitutional coup.
In doing so he endangered the viability of Pakistan as an independent state. He presented the country’s democratic forces with a tough decision — acquiesce to the brutality of the dictatorship or take over the streets and show the world where the people of Pakistan really stand.
General Musharraf also presented the democratic world — and especially the countries of the West — with a question. Will they back up their democratic rhetoric with concrete action, or will they once again back down in the face of his bluff?
In my view, General Musharraf’s ruling party understood that it would be trounced in any free elections and, together with its allies within the intelligence services, contrived to have the Constitution suspended and elections indefinitely postponed. Very conveniently, the assassination attempt against me last month that resulted in the deaths of at least 140 people is being used as the rationale to stop the democratic process by which my party would most likely have swept parliamentary elections. Maybe this explains why the government refuses to allow the F.B.I. and Scotland Yard to assist in a forensic investigation of the bombings.
As I write, demonstrations are taking place across Pakistan. Opposition party members, lawyers, judges, human rights advocates and journalists have been rounded up by the police without charge. The press has been seriously constrained. The chief justice of the Supreme Court and many other judges are believed to be under house arrest.
The United States, Britain and much of the West have always said the right things about democracy in Pakistan and around the world. I recall the words of President Bush in his second inaugural address when he said: “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”
The United States alone has given the Musharraf government more than $10 billion in aid since 2001. We do not know exactly where or how this money has been spent, but it is clear that it has not brought about the defeat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, nor succeeded in capturing Osama bin Laden, nor has it broken the opium trade. It certainly has not succeeded in improving the quality of life of the children and families of Pakistan.
The United States can promote democracy — which is the only way to truly contain extremism and terrorism — by telling General Musharraf that it does not accept martial law, and that it expects him to conduct free, fair, impartial and internationally monitored elections within 60 days under a reconstituted election commission. He should be given that choice: democracy or dictatorship with isolation.
While the world must do its part to confront tyranny, the primary responsibility rests in the hands of the people of Pakistan. It is incumbent on Pakistanis to tell General Musharraf that martial law will not stand. The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis are moderate; it is my hope that they will unite in a coalition of moderation to marginalize both the dictators and the extremists, to restore civilian rule to the presidency and to shut down political madrassas, the Islamic schools that stock weapons and preach violence.
It is dangerous to stand up to a military dictatorship, but more dangerous not to. The moment has come for the Western democracies to show us in their actions, and not just in their rhetoric, which side they are on.