In Wasif Khan’s cramped grocery store, the perspiring crowd that was gathered around the little television set behind the counter erupted in wild cheers Monday when it heard President Pervez Musharraf utter the word “resignation.”
Two taxi drivers hugged each other, then ran outside to their cabs to sound their horns in celebration. The rejoicing spread rapidly, with people firing guns in the air, throwing flowers and handing out sweets. Some literally danced for joy.
Musharraf’s dramatic declaration, the culmination of months of political turmoil, was part public spectacle and part nationwide soap opera played out in homes and offices, in teahouses and airline lounges, in sundry shops and mosque courtyards across Pakistan.
For perhaps the last time, the country came to a near-standstill to listen as the president, a former army general who has been deeply unpopular for more than a year, delivered a live address to the nation.
In months past, gathered around TV sets, the Pakistani people had heard Musharraf declare and then rescind near-martial law, step down as the nation’s military chief and concede crushing defeat in parliamentary elections exactly six months ago.
Flanked by the Pakistani flag and a portrait of the nation’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Musharraf spoke mainly in measured tones. But his voice rose in agitation as he accused his political foes, who won control in elections in February, of conducting a vendetta against him.
Musharraf, who turned 65 last week, spent almost an hour extolling the achievements of his nearly nine years in power, including a lengthy roll call of road construction and industrial output, before he finally paused, blinked, looked straight into the camera and announced he would step down.
The response was electric and instantaneous.
Outside the headquarters of the party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, ecstatic supporters waved posters of their slain leader, chanting, “Bhutto lives!” Some wept. Many of Bhutto’s backers considered Musharraf at least indirectly complicit in her death.
Even as the distant sounds of celebration began wafting over the presidential compound in the heart of the capital, Musharraf spoke on.
Finally, he ended his speech with a defiant gesture of raised fists.
“May God protect Pakistan forever,” he said.
The camera stayed on him for a long, awkward moment as he stacked his note cards, glanced to one side and pushed his chair back, half-rising.
As the speech ended, the Dawn television network cut back to its news anchor, who was still looking a little stunned.
“Pervez Musharraf,” he said. “The former president of Pakistan.”