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The Pakistan Coup’s Other Side

Guest Column
Bilal Zuberi

Recently, a lot has been published in the Western press about the military coup in Pakistan. Most of the press coverage tends to give the impression that the country has been taken over by a ruthless band of military commanders, and the lives and liberties of ordinary civilians are threatened. On the contrary, it seems that a large majority of Pakistanis, in Pakistan and abroad, have welcomed the coup. There have been no large public protests or demonstrations in support of the ousted government.

Pakistani intellectuals and journalists belonging to many disparate camps are writing in favor of the military coup. The people of Pakistan are viewing the new leadership as a refreshing alternative to the elected but inept and corrupt governments of the recent past. The new military government has provided a beacon of hope to the people.

The Western media, in its sensational stereotyping of the coup, has largely ignored what the Pakistani people feel about the military takeover. Nawaz Sharif, the ousted prime minister, was elected in 1996. His party enjoyed an overall majority in the parliament. He had the golden opportunity to bring prosperity to the nation. Instead, Nawaz Sharif used the parliamentary majority to increase his power and his wealth, and in the process destroyed all institutions of checks and balances that are indispensible to any democracy. He introduced amendments in the constitution which made it illegal for any party member to express an opinion different from his or her party’s official policy.

Thus, voices of dissension from within his party were effectively strangled. When the Supreme Court was hearing cases of corruption against Nawaz Sharif, he had his party workers stormed the Supreme Court while it was in session, in order to disrupt the proceedings and the Chief Justice was soon sacked by Nawaz Sharif. Pakistan’s President was forced to submit his resignation. The fate of the former chief of the army was similar to that of the President.

Nawaz Sharif did not stop there. He started to sow the seeds of dissension in the higher echelons of the armed forces so as to render it ineffective as a check on his ambitions. Sharif sacked the current army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, while Gen. Musharraf was on a flight back from Sri Lanka. His plane was not even allowed to land in Pakistan -- a step that endangered the lives of nearly 300 passengers traveling on the commercial flight.

Since its independence, Pakistan has been through several cycles of democracy and military rule. Nearly 25 of its 52 years of independence were spent under martial law and military dictatorship. These dictatorships were accompanied by systematic repression of dissent and the subordination of civil liberties and the freedom of press. Partly due to the repeated interventions by the army, and partly as a result of the misgovernance by the democratically elected governments, democratic institutions in the country have largely remained undeveloped.

In the last few years, the political scene in Pakistan has been dominated by Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League. Each political party was elected to power twice, and removed from office when corruption, nepotism, and misgovernance became so prevalent that it endangered the survival of the state. Over the years, the hopes of the Pakistani people for democracy have been replaced with disillusionment and despair.

At present, the military government is a change for the better from the corrupt and self-serving political leaderships. Only the military has the strength to confront tax evaders and loan defaulters, and maintain fair and impartial accountability across the board. General Musharraf also supports devolution of political power to the grass-roots level, freedom of press and information, protection of minority rights, improved relations with India, and suitable reforms needed to strengthen the democratic institutions and prepare the path for democracy.

While his policies provide a glimmer of hope, history has taught us to be cautious -- in the past, military rulers in Pakistan have tended to stay in power much longer than necessary. It is hoped that General Musharaf will carry out his reforms and then make way for a democratically elected government.

Bilal Zuberi G is the president of MIT’s Pakistani Students Society.