Islamabad: Pakistan?President Gen. Pervez Musharraf rejected an appeal by the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to lift his state of emergency, insisting in an interview that it was the best way to ensure free and fair elections.
He vigorously defended the emergency decree issued 10 days earlier that suspended the constitution, dismissed the Supreme Court, silenced independent news stations and resulted in the arrests of at least 2,500 opposition party workers, lawyers and human rights advocates. “I totally disagree with her,” Musharraf said in an interview at the presidential building here in the capital on Tuesday. “The emergency is to ensure elections go in an undisturbed manner.” He said Sunday that elections would go ahead by 9 January.
Dressed in a dark business suit rather than his military uniform, Musharraf spoke in a confident tone, saying the decree was justified because the Supreme Court had questioned the validity of his re-election, and because of the seriousness of threats from terrorists.
He refused to say when he would step down as army leader and become a civilian president, a demand that US President George W. Bush has made publicly and, in a telephone call last week, privately. “It will happen soon,” he said.
Musharraf, who has been criticized as being increasingly isolated and receiving poor advice from a shrinking circle of aides, insisted he was in touch with the mood of Pakistanis.
Hard talk: Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf during an interview in Islamabad on Tuesday. He said Pakistan was suffering from a ‘disturbed terrorist environment’.
Dismissing consistent reports that a vast majority of Pakistanis oppose his emergency decree, he said he had information from “several organizations” and feedback from politicians and friends that the move was popular. “I know what they feel about the emergency when all these suicide bombings were taking place,” he said, speaking of the rising number of suicide bombings in Pakistan. “Their view is, Why have I done it so late.”
He sharply criticized the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, saying she was confrontational and would be difficult to work with. Bhutto returned to Pakistan last month in a deal brokered by the Bush administration, which hoped that the two could find a way to share power, in order to increase public support for Musharraf’s increasingly unpopular military government.
The understanding was that she would take part in elections that could make her prime minister, while he would run for re-election as president. Instead, they have engaged in increasingly public sparring and Bhutto has come in for criticism that she is an American pawn who is not mounting serious opposition to the general.
Early Tuesday, 900 police officers surrounded the house where Bhutto was staying in Lahore, preventing her from leading a march to Islamabad to protest what opposition groups say is martial law. After waiting for more than a week, on Tuesday she joined other opposition leaders and called for Musharraf to resign.
“You come here supposedly on a reconciliatory mode, and right before you land, you’re on a confrontationist mode,” he said in the interview. “I am afraid this is producing negative vibes, negative optics.” As for her demand that he resign, he said “she has no right” to ask.
Another opposition leader Imran Khan, who had gone into hiding after Musharraf declared emergency and began rounding up opposition activists, surfaced at a student demonstration against emergency rule on Wednesday in Lahore. His party said he was promptly detained by police. Khan was the only one of Musharraf’s most outspoken critics not in detention or exile.
On 3 November, Musharraf imposed emergency rule when it became clear that the Supreme Court was about to declare his re-election last month illegal. That election was carried out by the national and provincial assemblies and boycotted?by?many opposition parties, though not by Bhutto’s.
After a more compliant court was impanelled this week, Musharraf said he expected to be sworn in as a civilian president after the new court validated his re-election. But asked when emergency rule would end, he said matter-of-factly, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
He said Pakistan was suffering from a “disturbed terrorist environment,” and he appeared to be unaffected by calls from Europe as well as the US for an end to the emergency rule. Instead, the general, whose government has received more than $10 billion (Rs399.3 crore) in aid from the Bush administration, mostly for the military, asked for even more support and patience.
The Bush administration has called the general the best bet to fight Al Qaeda and Islamic militants, but has also complained that the cooperation of the Pakistani military has been sporadic and often ineffective.
Analysts here and abroad have said that the state of emergency has diverted thousands of police and intelligence agents from the fight against terrorism to the enforcement of the crackdown. But Musharraf said the decree had done no such thing. “If we are dealing with moderates, that doesn’t mean that we are not dealing with terrorists,” he said. “Who has said that? They are two different issues.”
He said his army was limited in its resources for taking on the militants. “Ten days back, of 20 Cobra helicopters, we have only one that was serviceable,” he said. “We need more support.” His army even needed help from the US on efforts to shut down the FM radio signal of a leading pro-Taliban religious leader, Maulana Fazlullah, whose militant followers have been rapidly gaining territory in the area of Swat in the North-West Frontier Province. “You give us the technical means to do it,” he said. “We’ve tried everything.”
“We’ve adopted all technical means,” he added, but so far his forces have failed to squelch the imam’s transmissions, which are believed to be fairly amateurish. Militant activity in the rugged north-west has increased markedly this year, raising questions among Pakistanis about how American money for the army was being used. Musharraf said the army had now regrouped in northern and southern Waziristan, where it faced the strongest challenge from the militants, whom he called a “vicious enemy”.
“Now wherever the disturbance, we will strike very, very strongly,” he said. In Washington, Bush administration officials said privately that they were increasingly frustrated with both Musharraf and Bhutto. Administration officials said they were quietly trying to take the temperature of Pakistan’s army for signs that Musharraf’s top officers were starting to turn cool towards him. “It’s not a question of trying to prompt anything,” a senior official said. “We’re just trying to make sure we’re keeping tabs of all the concerned parties.”
Rice, meanwhile, is dispatching John Negroponte, her deputy, to Pakistan for a face-to-face meeting with Musharraf, they said. The envoy, who last week called the general “indispensable” to American interests, is expected to arrive in Islamabad at the end of the week. But other administration officials fretted that Negroponte’s efforts may yield as little as the phone calls from his boss, Rice, and her boss, Bush.
Officials at both the White House and the state department also said they were worried that Bhutto had overplayed her hand in calling for Musharraf to resign, and that she may no longer be able to accept an olive branch from him on a power-sharing deal, should he extend one.
Musharraf said Bhutto had been placed under house arrest because she had accused the chief minister of the province of Punjab, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, of plotting against her. The detention, he said, was to prevent an incident that she could then use to lay blame on the government. He added that her plan for her party members to participate in the march across the Punjab to Islamabad was “a preposterous thing to do.”
Musharraf questioned Bhutto’s popularity, and at one point scanned an article she recently wrote for the op-ed page of The New York Times that he had brought to the interview. In reaction to her claim that her party would most likely sweep parliamentary elections, the general said, “Let’s start the elections, and let’s see whether she wins.”
“Constitutionally, today she has been prime minister twice,” he said. “What about the third time? She is not legally allowed; she is not constitutionally allowed. Why are we taking things for granted?”
Western governments and Western news media, he said, have overestimated Bhutto’s support because they listen too much to human rights advocates in Pakistan. “You go and meet human rights activists,” he said, challenging his interviewers. “Ninety per cent of them may have never cast their votes. They sleep on the day of elections.”
Musharraf said 58 privately owned television channels in Pakistan that had been closed under the emergency decree—including a dozen independent news stations—would be allowed to open if they agreed to a government code of conduct. “The media is independent,” Musharraf said. “We have taken certain actions against the media because we want to bring some responsibility to them.”
Journalists and Western diplomats have condemned the code as a blatant attempt at political censorship. The code carries a jail sentence of up to three years for journalists whose coverage “ridicules” the president or other government officials, they said.
Regarding his opponents other than Bhutto, Musharraf yielded no ground. Asked why Asma Jahangir, who heads the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, had been arrested when she attended a meeting at the commission’s headquarters on the first day of emergency rule, he replied, “Because she was agitating and trying to disturb peace.”
Musharraf said Jahangir, the leading human rights advocate in Pakistan and one of the first women to become a lawyer, was too ambitious in her fight for women’s rights. He agreed that Pakistani women deserved more opportunities, and he cited his own legislation amending the laws to protect women against accusations of rape and adultery. But Jahangir, he said, wanted to go too fast, and would therefore fail. He called her “quite an unbalanced character.”
Britain’s Sky News on Wednesday quoted Musharraf as having said in an interview that he had considered resigning. Musharraf told Sky he had decided against this as he felt he was the man to lead Pakistan into democracy.
According to Sky, he insisted: “I am not a dictator.” ©2007/the New York Times
Reuters and AP also contributed to this story.