Why Musharraf’s Exit is Bad for Pakistan but May End Up Helping Nawaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif’s constituents may think less of him for allowing Pervez Musharraf to leave, but he now appears to have strong ties with the army, and is therefore seen as someone who can deliver.

The adage ‘you reap what you sow’ need not always be all bad, as it turned out for Pakistan’s former military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. As indicated by one of his political aides and legal consul, Ahmed Reza Kasuri, Musharraf cut a deal with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to be allowed out of the country.

Musharraf is no stranger to political deals. In 2007, he struck one with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto to bring her back to Pakistan, under the rubric of the national reconciliation ordinance (NRO). Although that deal – and the one he reached with Sharif – may be different in its details, the former set up a system of arrangements whereby leaders could enter or exit the country to escape accountability. Just as the NRO deal allowed leaders from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and by extension leaders from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), to escape questioning for their political and economic impropriety, Musharraf’s deal has allowed him to exit Pakistan while being tried for treason and his role in the murders of Bhutto and the cleric of the Lal Masjid, Abdul Rasheed Ghazi.

The exit arrangement

The impression we get from Kasuri’s statement on the deal is that it could be some sort of financial arrangement, the details of which he promises to make public at an appropriate time. In all likelihood, the details of the arrangement may never be disclosed as it could possibly embarrass Musharraf, who has always presented himself as above any financial corruption and as someone who would put Pakistan before personal considerations.

Kasuri’s statement may also be just to embarrass Sharif and protect the army, which is heavily involved in Musharraf’s rescue. Had it not been for the present army chief, General Raheel Sharif, the former dictator may not have been able to get out of Pakistan, to which he returned in 2013 in the hope of clearing his name in various legal cases and fulfilling his dream of returning to politics.

Many believe Musharraf read too much into the large number of Facebook and Twitter followers he had, and thought these numbers could be translated into huge gains in the 2013 elections. But that did not happen. Musharraf had lost his currency, especially among the upwardly mobile middle class, his prime constituency, after Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) gained political space.

The other reason for his return was to ensure his name was cleared of all legal charges. In January 2016, for example, he was acquitted of killing Nawab Akbar Bugti, the Baluch tribal leader assassinated by the army in 2006 – a crime for which he was indicted in 2015. Although the treason case was continuing, he rarely came to the court and had recently asked to be allowed out of the country on grounds of ill-health. The government initially tried to place the responsibility for taking a decision on the Superior Court, which seemed equally unwilling to act. The court eventually ruled that to allow Musharraf to go abroad or not was the prerogative of the executive.

Standing by their man

General Raheel Sharif. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

General Raheel Sharif. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Interior Mnister Chaudhry Nisar claims Musharraf will return, but people doubt it. However, the furore and anxiety exhibited in Pakistan over Musharraf’s departure seems strange as no one except those that advised Sharif to proceed with Musharraf’s trial believed that the legal case would come to anything. Sources talk of a group of five or six senior journalists based in Lahore who encouraged Sharif to teach Musharraf a lesson for humiliating the Sharif family after the 1999 coup.

The Musharraf trial was believed to be one of the three sticking points between Nawaz and the army.  General Sharif was closely linked with Musharraf due to the latter’s friendship with his late brother, Major Shabeer Sharif, who had died in the 1971 war and received the highest military award for gallantry. The other two matters are believed to be relations with Afghanistan and India.

In the last year or so, the trial had become painfully embarrassing for Sharif as Musharraf and the army would collude to ensure that the former general did not come to the court. At the end of it, the army stood by its man.

The politics of power

The uproar in Pakistan gives the impression that Sharif just made one of the biggest blunders of his political career. But he hasn’t. In allowing Musharraf to leave, Sharif indirectly announced his intent to follow in the footsteps of former president Asif Ali Zardari, who constantly retreated in the face of pressure from the army during his tenure from 2008-2013. Zardari’s goalpost was simply the survival of his government. It is this transition from one civilian government to another for the first time in the history of Pakistan that many consider as denoting a change in civil-military relations when it is actually does not. Sharif has over the years built a reputation of misunderstanding the ethos of the armed forces. One wonders how he could have miscalculated the fact that out of the three A’s that are believed to run Pakistan – America, Army and Allah – the military would emerge as the strongest player.

Some in Pakistan, including popular lawyer and human rights expert Asma Jahangir, consider Musharraf’s departure as “good riddance of bad rubbish”. Jahangir believes that his presence was a distraction for the strengthening of democracy. At the least, his presence in the country was a constant reminder that the more powerful Sharif was the one in khaki and not the politician. But would the absence of such distraction strengthen the democracy project? The simple answer is no. It is just a shameful reminder that political dispensation has a lot to do before it becomes even remotely stable.

Nawaz Sharif. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nawaz Sharif. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is not to suggest that Sharif will naturally weaken due to Musharraf’s departure. Everything else being equal, Sharif remains a strong competitor for the 2018 elections, in which he has a fair chance to win. His constituents may think of him as less of a muscular man but Musharraf’s departure has further strengthened the image of Sharif having good links with the army, which means he remains a man who can deliver. That is why the former dictator’s departure, in itself, might not weaken Sharif politically, particularly vis-à-vis his political opponents. As far as political emotions are concerned, Pakistani society seems to have gone numb to a degree that letting a dictator go scot-free may not have an impact. After all, in a state where the military independently runs its own media campaign and all political parties are forced to toe the army line, why should it be sinful for a sitting prime minister to let a former army chief leave? Didn’t everyone know that the army was poised to protect its own and especially a man so close to General Sharif?

Of course, there is the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) with its social media campaign and the PPP with its rallies, but neither party has the gumption to stand up to the armed forces. Historically, the JI has always behaved like the army’s B team. The current JI leader is a pragmatist who would never seriously challenge Rawalpindi. As for the PPP, Zardari, its de facto chairman, is in the process of signalling to the army his desire to rebuild weakened bonds. His main worry is his remaining constituency in Sindh, which is also the centre of his financial empire.

The protest against Musharraf’s departure is mainly a political ploy to challenge Sharif, who in recent times, seems to have further jolted Bhutto’s party by even making inroads in the liberal segments of the society, which traditionally supported the PPP. The decision to hang Salman Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, and legislating on violence against women in Punjab seems to have turned the right-wing image of the Sharif brothers on its head. The PPP has gone full blast declaring holidays on Holi and Easter in the Sindh province and reminding people how terribly awful the decision to let Musharraf leave is. Most of the protests are concentrated in Sindh, which is not Sharif’s constituency anyway. The Pakistan Muslim League (N) has traditionally ignored Sindh and relegated the province to its junior partners.

The PPP is probably trying to indicate that it can mobilise people on the streets. While the PTI has shied away from further street mobilisation after the failure of its notorious dharna (sit-in) in 2014, the PPP is trying hard to re-build its image as a bargainer. The political ruckus is intended to embarrass the sitting government, put a dent in its image and signal to the army that the PPP’s street mobilisation power can come handy at a stage when Rawalpindi debates who to appoint as the next army chief in the coming months.

For the moment, there is nothing to challenge the army’s power or bring Musharraf back to the country. After all, the generation of politics born out of the womb of the NRO cannot produce any better.

Note: This article originally published here.