Perennial Salvation: The Return of Pervez Musharraf

You’ve got to ask what he is returning for. An answer is easy to come by. Elections are coming up in Pakistan – on May 11th.. The former military dictator Pervez Musharraf does not want to be left out fiddling on the sidelines of history. His rivals for the ballot are a colourful bunch, a mixture of corruption, authoritarian impulses and utopian fantasies. Nawaz Sharif has thrown his hat into the ring. Former cricket superstar and charismatic Imran Khan is also there, having electrified Pakistani politics in 2011 with his promise to bypass the two-party stranglehold. Despite recently losing support, Khan is certainly in with a chance.

Eventually, addiction produces withdrawal symptoms too hard to ignore. The nature of Pakistani politics, a hot pot of vicious challenges and lethal demises, attracts false returns and grandiose promises of redemption. Does Gen. Musharraf have a different take on this? The greeting crowds were small in number as the former Pakistani president returned on Sunday from a four year self-imposed exile. Before returning, he was wise enough to arrange pre-arrest bail, given the series of cases that await him. One never returns unsullied.

The death threats from the Pakistan Taliban and Al Qaeda were almost mandatory entertainment. Adnan Rasheed, planner and executor of previous assassination efforts, starred in a video released by the Taliban promising the returning general that his group had “prepared a special squad to send Musharraf to hell.”

This is fitting in a way. Musharraf did much of the legwork for the extremists to gain ground as Pakistan bedded down with Washington’s security establishment after the attacks of September 11, 2001. One extremist was not necessarily the same as another. Depending on which group you were, the Musharraf regime would look the other way, fearing the support such movements might garner. The country fragmented as the Pakistani Taliban made gains in the country, creating what is today the Swat territory that is home to militants and the murderous antics of US drones. Pakistani sovereignty has effectively been shredded in that region.

It has come to light that a welcome rally for Musharraf planned in Karachi did not take place due to security reasons. Retired general Rashid Quereshi, a prominent figure in Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League, claimed that “there was a serious threat to General Musharraf’s life, and the Taliban were going to try to kill him by a multipronged attack, including snipers and suicide bombers.” In truth, the cancellation may well have saved face for Musharraf – the turn out may well have been painfully small.

“I have returned. People used to think that I would not return, but I have come back. I am not scared of anyone but God.” Such returns – one thinks of Benazir Bhutto as a case in point – start with a platform of salvation. Pakistan is there to be rescued, the perennially distressed nation that needs revelations and heroes. That in itself is a depressing point. Its leaders all too often chant in the manner of saviours and govern in the manner of indifferent looters. Their removal becomes a solemn duty.

At times, that comes in the form of a spectacular and brutal killing. In October 2007, Bhutto, herself a return from exile, was attacked in a motorcade as it left Karachi airport, resulting in the deaths of 140 people. She survived that, only to be killed by a suicide bomber two months later. The bitter twist to this tale is that Musharraf has himself been accused of arranging the killing, in addition to that of a tribal leader, Akbar Bugti (The Economist, March 24). Throw in charges of treason for his own successful coup attempt in 1999, and we have a weighty resume of charges.

The assassins will be lining up as the country readies for the elections in May, though Musharraf may prove to be a lesser target. The former dictator can claim to have had some influence among poorer voters. Certainly, a few will remember his efforts to keep prices down, albeit artificially, during his time in office. Growth rates of 7 per cent were registered. But that may well prove to be a distant memory.

Officials will be concerned to make sure that the term of one elected government concludes with a transition of power to the next. For Pakistan’s coup studded history, that will be something of a minor miracle, though it will not necessarily guarantee stability.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.