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Deeperinto the Abyss

Monday 5 November 2007, by Tarik Ali

For anyone marinated in the history of Pakistan yesterday’s decision by the military to impose a State of Emergency will hardly comes as a surprise. Martial Law in this country has become an antibiotic: in order to obtain the same results one has to keep doubling the doses. What has taken place is a coup within a coup.

General Pervaiz 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 the civil rights activists of the Human Right Commission of Pakistan, thus inaugurating yet another shabby period in the country history.

Why? They feared that a Supreme Court judgement 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. Benazir Bhutto, was informed and left the country. She is reportedly on her way back. Till now she has offered no comment on the new martial law, despite the fact that a senior leader of her party, Aitzaz Ahsan has been arrested for denouncing the coup. Intoxicated by the incense of power she might now discover that it

Remains as elusive as ever. If she supports the latest turn it will be an act of political suicide. If she decides to dump the General(she has accused him of breaking his promises and it will be difficult for her to remain allied to a dictator) she will be betraying the confidence of the US State Department, which pushed her in this direction. At a recent off-the-record gathering at Ditchley Park(a British Foreign Office think-tank), the would-be Secretary of State, James Rubin, became short-tempered when Pakistani participants challenged his view that Bhutto was a decisive player in the ’war on terror’ on the Western borders of the country.

The two institutions targeted by the Emergency are the judiciary and the lively network of independent TV stations, many of whose correspondents supply information that can never be gleaned from politicians. Geo TV the largest of these continued to broadcast outside the country. Hamid Mir, one of its sharpest journalists, reported yesterday afternoon that according to his sources the US Embassy had green lighted the coup because they regarded the Chief Justice as a nuisance and ’a Taliban sympathiser’.

For a whole year now, the regime was confronted with a severe crisis of legitimacy that came to a head earlier this year when General Musharraf’s decision to suspend the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Hussein Chaudhry, provoked a six-month long mass movement that forced a government retreat. Some of Chaudhry’s judgements 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 in the past. Those who resisted previous military leaders were cajoled, blackmailed, bullied and persuaded to retire. Pakistani judges spring from the same milieu as the rest of the ruling elite, which is why the decision of this chief justice to fight back was surprising, but extremely important and won him enormous respect, a commodity in short supply.

Global media coverage of Pakistan suggests a country consisting of Generals, corrupt politicians and bearded lunatics. The struggle to reinstate the Chief Justice presented a different snapshot of the country. This movement for constitutional freedoms revived hope at a time when most people are alienated from the system and cynical about their rulers, whose ill-gotten wealth and withered faces consumed by vanity inspire nil confidence.

That this is the case can be seen in the heroic decision taken by the Supreme Court in a special session yesterday declaring the new dispensation ’illegal and unconstitutional’. 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 in suspension for more than three months then Musharraf himself might be pushed aside by the Army and a new strongman put in place. Or it could be that the aim of the operation was limited to a cleansing of the Supreme Court and controlling the media. That is what Musharraf indicated in his broadcast to the nation. In which case a totally rigged election becomes a certainty next January. Whatever the case Pakistan’s long journey to the end of the night continues.

Tariq Ali’s new book, Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, is published by Verso. He can be reached at: