Islamabad, Pakistan – Atif Jehangir sits in the half-light of Rajah Market on a cool late-summer evening and says that the events of the past week here could push him to terrorism.
It is an unexpected admission, not only because the young business student could be the face of Pakistani moderation: educated, beardless, and dressed in Western clothes. But also because the power-sharing deal announced last week between President Pervez Musharraf and political leader Benazir Bhutto has been hailed in many corners of the West as the keystone to political calm.
Instead it has set Mr. Jehangir alight: “There is no way this is going to bring stability,” he says. “It is going to create more terrorists among people like me.”
Rhetoric often teeters toward the extreme in Pakistan, but there is no doubt that Mr. Musharraf’s reelection this past weekend – and his pact with Ms. Bhutto – has only increased anger across much of the country.
Citizens see it not as a step toward democracy, but as a United States-brokered deal to prop up Pakistan’s ruling elite, which is almost universally viewed as corrupt. As such, the deal exacerbates two of Pakistanis’ most deeply ingrained frustrations: that America meddles too much in its affairs, and that justice is subverted by the rich and withheld from the poor.
With America’s aid, Musharraf and Bhutto “are both saving each other,” says electrician Khalid Iqbal. “She wants the [prime minister’s] chair and he wants to save his skin.”
Is Musharraf’s victory legal?
Musharraf was overwhelmingly reelected president Saturday by Pakistan’s federal and provincial legislatures (the president is not elected by the people), but the Supreme Court has not yet decided whether his candidacy was legal.
The question regards the legality of Musharraf’s status as both president and Army chief and the court says it will rule no earlier than Oct. 17.
Until then, the deal between Musharraf and Bhutto remains in limbo. Yet the outlines are clear. If, as expected, the court legitimizes the election, Musharraf will take off the Army uniform, and Bhutto will be allowed to run for a third term as prime minister.
Already, Musharraf has passed an amnesty bill that allows Bhutto to return to the country Oct. 18 free of charges that she robbed millions from the government during her previous administrations in the 1980s and ’90s.
It’s this aspect that most infuriates Pakistanis in general, and student Jehangir in particular. “All the thieves and corrupt people have been forgiven,” he says. “What justice is this?”
Rather than a break from the past, when Pakistan was governed by military dictators and ineffective civilians, the deal is seen as a continuation of it.
“What Pakistan really needs is its institutions to be built in such a way that the process of democracy comes into the hands of the institutions, not the individuals,” says Khalid Rahman, a political scientist at the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad. “This is increasing the power of the individual.”
It has increased the perception that power trumps justice in Pakistan. In this respect, Jehangir looks to Americans with envy. “Whatever their religion or beliefs, at least they have rule of law.”
But America’s reputed role in bringing the deal about – pushing two enemies together to give Musharraf’s rule the sheen of democracy – also adds to a pervasive sense of helplessness here.
Among the friends with Jehangir outside Rajah Market, one man who refuses to give his name blurts out: “America has coordinated this whole thing. They chose the president. They chose the prime minister. Why are you even asking us our opinion?”
Bhutto’s return seen as tainted
Indeed, many Pakistanis feel that their future has now been decided, and they have not even had a say in it. Years ago, perhaps, Bhutto’s return from exile in London would have been a victory for the people.
But for many Pakistanis, she has compromised herself with this deal, putting herself in league with an unloved president, then following that up with a number of ill-advised statements. For example, she has said she would allow US forces into Pakistan to look for Osama bin Laden.
It is a hugely unpopular idea here – not so much because of support for bin Laden, but rather resentment of America’s influence.
Perhaps, in a longstanding Pakistani tradition, she is merely securing US support to consolidate her bid to return to power. But “judging by her statements “¦ it seems Bhutto doesn’t have her hand on the pulse of the public anymore,” says Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
This has boosted Pakistan’s other exiled former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who has been able to cast himself as the anti-Musharraf choice, though it is uncertain that he will be allowed back into the country. It has also elevated the status of Pakistan’s lawyers, who began the current uprising against Musharraf six months ago, taking to the streets when the president tried to sack the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Last week, the lawyers fired back by putting forward their own presidential nominee, Wajihuddin Ahmad, and there has been talk of establishing a lawyer’s party to contest the January parliamentary elections. But Mr. Ahmad says it is still early: “First, let us see what comes out of this chaos.”