Emergency in Pakistan: Returning from the brink

By Nasim Zehra, IANS

On Wednesday night Pakistan’s media, working overtime to gather information on the political goings-on, was quick to report that the government had almost arrived at a decision to impose the emergency. Government insiders had informed the media that at the Wednesday morning meeting at the presidency the decision had almost been taken.

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By night time all television channels reported on the near decision to impose emergency. They ably presented the political compulsions that were prompting imposition of emergency as well as the political fallout of the imposition. There was no doubt left that there would be no gains from such a move.

The television channels merely presented to the viewers a story in the making. The channels did not ‘make up’ a story. And Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s statement at the press conference after his meeting with the president in which he said that “after my meeting with the president we have decided not to impose emergency” clearly indicates that a near decision was reviewed and changed.

By daybreak no one in Pakistan had any doubt why emergency would be imposed; one, to block the Supreme Court from hearing former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s petition which could end up in allowing Sharif’s to return to Pakistan and two, to remove any legal roadblocks from a smooth re-election of the president.

The rest was all unconvincing – the talk of internal security threat from suicide bombers, the US threat to attack the tribal areas, the threat to Chinese nationals etc.

The US response to the possible imposition of emergency would not be hard to fathom. After all, for the Bush administration, with the news of the possible imposition of emergency also came the information that it was being imposed to stop the return of Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif.

Equally interesting for Washington must have been the news that some unnamed within Pakistani official circles were taking the position that the emergency was needed to also deal with the US threat to attack the tribal areas.

Hence, instead of a possible reason being increase in suicide bombings or a deteriorating situation in the tribal areas, a reason that the US could have even supported, the reasons were now being linked to the US – a sure recipe for increasing anti-Americanism within Pakistan. Given this situation, it would have been unlikely that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would have called to tell General Musharraf what a great idea it would be to impose emergency!

Clearly, Pakistan narrowly escaped being inflicted by what would have been a potential political disaster for Pakistan and for the Musharraf regime. There was almost a near decision within the president’s camp to impose emergency in the country.

The president had himself said only two days earlier that there would be no imposition of emergency. Yet he was advised by his key advisors to respond to political challenges with an authoritarian move – one that would prevent the Supreme Court from entertaining the Sharifs’ petition under the human rights clause of the constitution. Such an advice, if taken by Musharraf, could have put him on a confrontation path with the Supreme Court.

Finally, in not taking the step of imposition of emergency, the government has averted a self-inflicted disaster. Given Pakistan’s current political climate, including the mood of Pakistan’s lawyers, political opponents, media and sections of the public, the imposition of emergency would in fact be a one-stop journey to martial law. And it takes no guessing to know that in this environment martial law would politically devour the imposer and the system. Martial laws leave behind a trail of losers and no gainers.

The Musharraf regime faces two political challenges: one, the return of the Sharif brothers, and two, his own re-election. The crucial issue of transition from a military led democracy to genuine democracy is dependant on how the government responds to these challenges.

There can, however, only be a political response to these challenges involving political initiatives by the Musharraf regime. A regime, which should have been chastened by the experience of the judicial crisis, must know that the option of political pressure of political manipulation is no longer available to it.

The only way forward is to move on the path of national reconciliation. The Musharraf regime must call a round table of the major political parties, agree on how to conduct fair and free elections and give a credible public commitment to not violate the constitution on the uniform issue. Anything less will end up in the multiplication of insurmountable political challenges.

(Nasim Zehra is a national security strategist and columnist. She can be reached at [email protected])