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Critics doubt Musharraf can be ousted

Times Staff Writer

For President Pervez Musharraf, it has been a week of living dangerously.

But even as activists across Pakistan vow to step up their defiance of de facto martial law, many of those arrayed against Musharraf are beginning to believe he may just survive this crisis, at least in the short term.

“We hope to prevail -- we are struggling against military dictatorship, after all,” said Amina Paracha, a prominent attorney and pro-democracy activist. “But make no mistake, it is a struggle, and we don’t know yet if we can succeed.”

At 64, Musharraf is a leader who has always thrived on chaos, calculatedly making use of disarray to advance his goals. Though events of the last week often appeared to be spinning out of control, analysts said many of the army general’s signature tactics came into play after he imposed emergency rule, including some that have served him well in the past.

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He skillfully exploited rifts within Pakistan’s political opposition, playing foes against one another. He alternated pleas for understanding with blunt displays of massive force. If his political allies entertained doubts, he forced them to maintain a united public front.

Although the Bush administration has been critical of his actions, it has maintained ties with the general, continuing to describe him as an “indispensable” ally in the fight against Islamic militants. U.S. aid to Pakistan is still flowing unimpeded, which helps Musharraf retain the loyalty of the army, the recipient of most of that money.

In the long run, analysts said, the United States may lose its patience if the general fails to deliver in his battle with the militants, but for the moment, Musharraf has managed to stymie his opponents.

“There’s no immediate threat to him,” said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author and analyst. “He’s still the army chief, the masses are not in the streets, we haven’t seen deaths of lawyers or other protesters, the army hasn’t been called on to fire on anyone. . . . In the short term, there’s nothing to stop him from doing what he is doing.”

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The emergency decree Musharraf issued on the night of Nov. 3 sent shock waves through Pakistani civil society.

The constitution was suspended, the judiciary was decimated and independent news stations were silenced. Thousands of mainly politically moderate Pakistanis -- lawyers and judges, professors and poets, students and seminarians -- are behind bars for daring to oppose the president.

Many of the general’s opponents had hoped that by now, a cascade of international criticism and a wave of domestic unrest would have forced him to ease the authoritarian measures that have deprived Pakistanis of basic liberties. But those hopes have not been fulfilled.

Prodded by Western governments, Musharraf has made a few concessions.

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He promised to hold parliamentary elections by mid-February, a month behind schedule, and his attorney general, Malik Mohammed Qayyum, spread the word Saturday that emergency rule probably would end within a month or two.

Few Pakistanis, however, have faith that the elections will take place as promised, or that they will be free and fair.

“How can you have a real election campaign that takes place during martial law?” student Nauman Khan asked. “It will only be a piece of theater.”

Musharraf has so far resisted the key demand from nearly all sides: that he set a firm date for stepping down as chief of Pakistan’s powerful military, which he was to have done in the coming week. And he has given no sign that he will even consider reinstating the independent-minded judges he has fired.

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But even as most Pakistanis view Musharraf with anger and disdain, his opponents have failed to muster correspondingly large protests against him. Lawyers, who made up the one group that swiftly and repeatedly took to the streets, were dealt with harshly, with hundreds beaten and thrown into jail.

A Pakistani newspaper last week carried a front-page photo of a lawyer, clad in the black suit that barristers must wear in court, being beaten over the head by a club-wielding policeman. “Objection Overruled,” the caption said.

On Saturday, police prevented Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, from visiting fired Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who has been under effective house arrest since the emergency decree. Bhutto, who until recently was in power-sharing talks with the general, is now spearheading opposition to emergency rule, though she has not ruled out negotiating with him again if liberties are restored.

At a small rally with Pakistani journalists Saturday, Bhutto urged “all segments of the population to join us in the struggle for democracy.”

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“When the masses combine, the sound of their steps will suppress the sound of the military boots,” she said.

But Bhutto has been thwarted in her attempts to bring tens of thousands of supporters into the streets. A huge demonstration she planned to lead Friday was over before it began. Authorities confined Bhutto to her home for the day and locked down the city of Rawalpindi, where the protest was to have taken place.

Pakistani officials also have signaled that they will quash a road rally Bhutto says she plans to hold Tuesday from the eastern city of Lahore to the capital, a journey of 185 miles.

Although Musharraf may have outmaneuvered his opponents for the time being, in the longer term, his options narrow sharply. U.S. officials have warned that American patronage is not open-ended, and will depend on the general acting decisively against Islamic militants in the tribal areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

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Western military officials are alarmed by the spread of militancy from the tribal areas into government-controlled areas of the North-West Frontier Province. Militants in the scenic Swat valley, peaceful until earlier this year, have been on a major offensive, seizing territory and capturing dozens of government troops.

“The real problem with all this is that our terrorism objectives are not being advanced,” said a Western diplomat in Islamabad, speaking on condition of anonymity. “No one wants to punish the Pakistani people, but assistance has to be tied to those objectives.”

President Bush said Saturday that he had faith in Musharraf’s pledge to hold elections and to give up his military post.

“I take a person for his word until [proved] otherwise. I think that’s what you have to do,” Bush said at a news conference at his Texas ranch. “When somebody says this is what they’re going to do, then you give them a chance to do it.”

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Mindful that Musharraf benefits from a fractured opposition, some of his longtime foes are trying to put aside old enmities and work together.

Exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a bitter critic of Bhutto’s power-sharing talks with the general, said Saturday that he wanted to join with her in opposing the emergency decree.

“I’m very willing to work together with Benazir Bhutto to launch a decisive struggle for rule of law and democracy in our country,” he told Britain’s Sky News from Saudi Arabia.

Bhutto, too, was seeking to mend fences with her attempted visit to Chaudhry. She did not begin speaking forcefully in favor of fired judges getting their jobs back until late last week, angering some of the chief justice’s supporters, who noted that she might fear that a reconstituted court would throw out the amnesty Musharraf granted her on corruption charges.

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“Civil society is her vote bank, and if she appears to be in Musharraf’s pocket, she loses that bank,” said Rashid, the author.

Pakistan’s independent news channels have been told that they will be allowed back on the air if they agree to abide by new regulations prohibiting ridicule or denigration of the government. They have refused.

Students, too, are beginning to organize, stepping into the vacuum left as lawyer protests taper off.

“It might take a while for a strategy to evolve,” said Abida Hussain, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. “But look at the situation: The people of Pakistan are stuck with a tin-pot despot who has no respect for fundamental rights and democratic freedom. I think there will be increasing popular resistance. There has to be.”

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laura.king@latimes.com

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Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.


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