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S U B C O N T I N E N T A L   D R I F T
Sharif's Smile
General Musharraf's bungling will make a hero of the man he deposed

February 3, 2000
Web posted at 6 a.m. Hong Kong time, 5 p.m. EST

In the courthouse where he faces charges that could send him to the gallows, deposed Prime Minister Muhammed Nawaz Sharif smiled. He had just received word that some of Pakistan's judges had refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the regime of General Pervez Musharraf. Sharif's smile last week was that of a drowning man who has just seen a life raft.

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By bringing the judiciary under his thumb--but not before receiving a public slap in the face from a few good judges--the dictator has saved Sharif from almost certain ignominy. With the credibility of Pakistan's judicial system now smashed beyond recognition, any judgment in the Sharif trial will be deeply flawed. If, as expected, Sharif is found guilty, his supporters will be able to claim he never got a fair hearing.

This is the SECOND favor the dictator has done for the man he deposed last October. Charging Sharif with attempted kidnapping (for allegedly refusing Musharraf's plane permission to land in Karachi as the coup unfolded) means the general has already distracted attention from the widespread allegations of graft and cronyism that had plagued the former Prime Minister. Islamabad has suggested that it might begin a corruption trial after this one has ended. But when he crippled the judiciary last week, Musharraf also hobbled any future case against Sharif.

So it's conceivable that Sharif, widely regarded as one of the subcontinent's most venal politicians, will now be able to turn himself into a hero with some simple political maneuvering. Before you scoff at that idea, remember Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Like Sharif, he was regarded as inept and corrupt, and was deposed by a military dictator, Zia ul-Haq. And like Musharraf, Zia compromised the judiciary: as a result, Bhutto went to the gallows a martyr, not a crook. I doubt very much that Sharif will hang, but, two decades on, Musharraf is repeating Zia's political blunder.

That Musharraf doesn't comprehend basic politics is understandable. After all, the general doesn't want to be a politician--he's happy to be just a dictator. But, after allowing himself to be slapped in the face by a handful of be-robed jurists, Musharraf revealed that he doesn't know much about that, either.

Also from TIME: A Strongman Shaken

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