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Published: Sunday, 5/15/2005

Pakistanis at odds with their president

BY S. AMJAD HUSSAIN
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is caught in a tight squeeze of a kind he never could have imagined when he seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

Then, the career military man was seen as a pragmatist, a practical leader. Now 61, he has worked his way up through the ranks of the army despite not being a member of the traditionally dominant Punjab class.

Yet now he is a man reviled by many of his countrymen. That is not because he overthrew the democratically elected but corrupt government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. At the time, Pakistan was wracked by widespread political discord and was hurtling towards bankruptcy.

General Musharraf seized power after the regime tried to fire him. The United States and most of Europe took a dim view of the coup, and the British Commonwealth expelled Pakistan.

But while the international community condemned the coup, people in Pakistan hailed their new leader as a savior. Pervez Musharraf brought in a Pakistani financial wizard from the City Group in New York to head the finance ministry and appointed other technocrats to ministerial positions.

This helped reverse the downward financial slide. Unfortunately his promise to curb militancy and reform the religious schools met with heavy opposition and eventually stalled. Then the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Prior to that, Pakistan had been a key supporter of the Taliban. But thanks in large part to lobbying by Washington, President Musharraf's regime abruptly reversed course, and that did not resonate well with his people. Nor did the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In reality President Musharraf was, indeed, in a hard place between Iraq and America. He had no real choice but to bow to American pressure and endorse America's war. As a result of that bargain, Pakistan has done well economically but is being torn within by political discord. And the once-popular general and president dare not appear in most places in public.

For him, keeping his country on an even course requires a constant delicate dance. Here are some of the president's remarks during a small private gathering I attended in Peshawar:

  • On the madrassas (religious schools): "The madrassas are important, and we are determined to bring them into the mainstream of education. My government is determined to reform the education system in the country and make sure we teach a broad-based education, including religion, in all our schools. We must have a holistic attitude toward education."

  • On Pakistan's role in the Muslim world: "There is turmoil in the world and (the world-wide community of Muslims) is directionless. The world's eyes are on Pakistan, and we must, as the most powerful Islamic country, play our role."

  • On extremism: "There have been misperceptions about Pakistan. We are accused of fermenting trouble in Kashmir and Afghanistan. We are also being accused of militancy and extremism and spreading nuclear technology. We are vigilant and we have been successful [in tackling those issues.]"

  • On hunting for terrorists: "The U.S. wants to bomb our border areas. Some say we are killing our own people in Wana (South Wazirstan). No, we are only after the foreigners who have created havoc in our country. It is strange but I did not know we had foreigners (living) in our country. The terrorism is not caused by our people but by those who have come from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Turkmenistan, and Chechnya. We are after them only and after those Pakistanis who shelter them. We are not doing this for the United States but for our own good."

  • On Pakistan: "Let us not forget that Pakistan is an ideological state created in the name of Islam. We are the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and make no apologies for that. We need to make it a progressive Islamic state. We must think of the rights of people along with the religious rituals."

  • On his credentials as a practicing Muslim: Some people question my Islamic credentials. I am a Muslim and a practicing Muslim.



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