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NOVEMBER 1, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 17

At Ease with The General
The leader of Pakistan's coup burnishes his image but makes little progress in restoring democracy
By MICHAEL FATHERS

He is disarmingly direct for a military ruler. "One likes to be in charge," General Pervez Musharraf conceded in his first official appearance before the press since leading a bloodless coup in Pakistan on Oct. 12. Musharraf can afford to sound satisfied: he has enjoyed broad public support for his takeover and even impressed Washington with a promise to rebuild the country's discredited and unpopular democracy. Looking every bit the suburban father in cotton slacks, suede shoes and a button-down shirt, Musharraf ushered his family toward the cameras. In his only miscue, he paused to scoop up his pets, a pair of Pekingese lapdogs. Muslims consider dogs impure, and any gesture that suggests Musharraf ignores Islamic strictures for a more secular way of life could be politically dangerous. Still, the carefully managed press event helped dispel fears of military rule, depicting the general as a stable, loving family man.

Musharraf's emergence from the barracks also helped to counter a common Western view that Pakistan is a rogue nuclear state of bearded Islamic extremists who back terrorism around the world. America's strategic interests have quickly outweighed the sense of displeasure at the toppling of Pakistan's elected government. "Despite our deep disappointment with this latest setback to democracy in Pakistan, we have no choice but to stay engaged," said Karl Inderfurth, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. "We cannot walk away, because Pakistan is important." Inderfurth said the U.S. and Pakistan's other old friends should exert influence to help restore democratic rule. But even though the general hasn't provided a deadline for the transition to democracy, the harshest response has been a decision by the 55-member Commonwealth to suspend Pakistan from its meetings.

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As the first wave of international concern subsided into a ripple, many of Pakistan's now-discredited politicians reemerged. Many dutifully blamed the country's problems on ousted Prime Minister Muhammed Nawaz Sharif, who remains in army custody. "There was a coterie of people, the inner circle, who knew what was coming," says a former minister who doesn't want to be identified. They encouraged Sharif, he says, to try to arrest Musharraf, a move that precipitated the coup. It is generally expected that Sharif will face corruption charges that could keep him in jail, and out of politics, for years. That seems to suit many Pakistanis just fine. "I do not mind if the general stays in power forever, as long as he can string up the looters of national wealth," says Ubaid Qazi, an Islamabad trader who voted for Sharif two years ago. "We have had enough of these politicians and enough of their democracy."

Musharraf stoked the new sense of optimism by striking a populist note. In a speech broadcast on radio and TV, he outlined his alternative "path to democracy"--a plan to lift Pakistan from "darkness," "despondency" and "hopelessness." Having suspended parliament, he announced a transitional four-tier system of government with President Muhammed Rafiq Tarar remaining in his largely symbolic post. The general named himself chief executive of a National Security Council, comprising the air and naval service chiefs and four civilian specialists in law, finance, foreign policy and national affairs. A cabinet of civilians is to be appointed to handle the administration of government under the council's guidance. A governor is to rule in each of Pakistan's four provinces through a small cabinet.

But as the second week of emergency rule wore on, Pakistanis had yet to see the promised government. "The delay has been caused by the fact that the change was not planned," said spokesman Brigadier Rashid Qureshi. Pakistanis at home and abroad with reputations untainted by scandal or corruption were sounded out to join the new administration. The search has moved slowly, insiders say, because some military chiefs are pushing for experienced veterans of earlier martial-law governments, while others want younger technocrats.

Musharraf will need the ablest aides he can find. He has pledged to reform the country's bankrupt economy, recover billions of rupees of embezzled public funds and unpaid taxes and bring bank-loan defaulters to task. Hundreds of accounts have already been frozen, but many bankers say the accountability process ultimately can be carried out only by force. "If the generals try to recover the amounts through the courts, they should forget it," says a foreign banker in Karachi. "It will take years."

This latest experiment in military rule contains a paradox: the constitution is in abeyance, but Musharraf says he wants fundamental rights to remain in place. Pakistan has become a topsy-turvy world where once-prominent figures are airbrushed from public life. Asked about the welfare of former Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz, a Foreign Office spokesman said, "Who?" After being reminded who Aziz is, the spokesman replied: "That question is irrelevant." It is as if the previous government had never existed, and its representatives were mere phantoms. Pakistanis are famous for knocking down the heroes they set up. How long for Chief Executive Pervez Musharraf?

With reporting by Hannah Bloch and Syed Talat Hussain/Islamabad and Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi

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