Islamabad: Before our children would salute our soldiers when they passed. Now they spit on them.” That is how Zahoor Ahmed described the feelings of his hillside village, Kohu, a three-hour drive from the capital, Islamabad.
It is a sentiment expressed openly in Pakistan these days, rare for a country where the military has long dominated everything, including the fear of speaking out. Ahmed’s immediate anger was set off by the government’s decision to storm the Red Mosque, an armed, pro-Taliban bastion in the heart of the capital, where several girls from his village attended a religious school.
But nearly eight years into General Pervez Musharraf’s rule as president of Pakistan, the Red Mosque siege is hardly the only cause for grievance. Conversations with ordinary Pakistanis reveal uncommonly outspoken anger and antipathy toward General Musharraf specifically, and the military’s involvement in
politics generally. Analysts and opinion polls support the impression.
Poll results: While nearly two out of three people polled said they believe General Musharraf should not run for re-elections, 62% of respondents said he should resign as army chief if he wants to remain preesident
“The consensus that is emerging in Pakistan is that the military has no role in politics,” said Rasul Baksh Rais, a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. “The military has lost its supporters in the media, in intelligentsia and also among politicians. As an institution, it’s really isolated. Its capability to dominate and control Pakistan is not possible anymore,” he added.
The broad dissatisfaction is rooted in many things, including a sense of everyday insecurity and rising prices, dislike of the general’s alliance with the Bush administration and anger that the military has reaped rewards?for itself,?but not fulfilled its promises to the people.
During General Musharraf’s tenure, two of Pakistan’s four provinces have turned to armed revolt against the military - Baluchistan, where tribe members are demanding more autonomy, and the tribal areas, where the Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies have established a stronghold.
The discontent also reaches into the corridors of government. Civil servants, university administrators and professors complain that civilians have been passed over for top jobs taken by military personnel.
A public opinion poll, part of which was released last week by the International Republican Institute (IRI) - an American organization financed partly by the government and containing several prominent Republicans on its board - found that General Musharraf’s approval ratings had plummeted to 34% from 60% in June 2006. Nearly two out of three Pakistanis polled said they believed he should not run for re-election.
The poll was based on interviews with 4,000 adults in rural and urban Pakistan, and was conducted between mid-June and early July, before the Red Mosque assault; it carried a margin of error of plus or minus 1.58 percentage points.
On whether the government had done a good job “on issues important to you”, 58% gave the government poor or very poor marks; 56% said they felt less safe than a year ago.
More detailed questions on the military - the results of which were to be released on Thursday - showed that it remained one of the most highly regarded institutions in Pakistan, with a steady 80% approval rating. But the poll also found that a growing number of people disapproved of the military’s intrusion into civilian government. Sixty-two percent of the respondents said General Musharraf should resign as army chief if he were to remain as president.
The president’s spokesperson, Major General Rashid Qureshi, declined to comment on the poll results until he had seen them. But he said that General Musharraf had declared in Karachi this week that he would run for re-election by the national and provincial assemblies between 15 September and 15 October. “Knowing him and gauging the public mood, we are very confident that he will win,” said General Qureshi, who has retired from the military.
Asked if the military’s image had been damaged by its operations at the Red Mosque and in the tribal areas, where the government deployed additional Pakistani troops last month, the army spokesman, Major General Waheed Arshad, maintained that they were carried out on the orders of the government and enjoyed broad public support.
“It is up to the public from what perspective they look at it,” he said. Referring to the Red Mosque siege, he added, “It has had a positive effect because the operation was carried out against people who were using a place of worship for their own interests.”
When he took power in a coup in 1999, General Musharraf was welcomed by Pakistanis disillusioned with years of unstable civilian governments. He was at first credited with reining in some of the worst excesses of avaricious politicians, with overseeing a growing economy, and a more open Pakistani society.
But since General Musharraf’s pledge to cooperate with the US-led battle against terrorism after 11 September 2001, it is the military that has been by far the biggest beneficiary of about $10 billion (Rs40,400 crore) in official American aid for Pakistan.
While the economy has expanded, so has the reach of the military’s many enterprises, which extend into virtually every corner of the economy.
“Pakistan’s military today runs a huge commercial enterprise,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, author of a recent book, Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, in which she estimates that the military’s internal economy is worth billions of dollars.
The military’s dominance of the political, economic and social life of Pakistan has matured to such an extent under General Musharraf, Siddiqa contends, that the military has ensured a long-term, if not permanent, role for itself in politics. “Even members of the opposition and civil society have openly or discreetly admitted that the organization cannot be got rid of,” she said.
That higher visibility also means that the military is blamed for many problems. Complaints about government corruption are still common. So is grumbling about the military government’s inability to control inflation or to maintain law and order. The general’s own political missteps have not helped, including his attempt in March to oust Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. In the IRI poll, 72% opposed the president’s decision.
As General Musharraf’s standing has eroded, speculation has grown about a possible power-sharing deal with his political nemesis, the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London to avoid corruption charges.
This week there was fresh talk that General Musharraf was considering a state of emergency, which his information minister, Tariq Azeem, told The Associated Press, “cannot be ruled out”.
Salman Masood in Islamabad contributed to this story.