Musharraf's Strategic Retreat

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Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf surrenders a ceremonial baton at his farewell ceremony at Air Force Headquarters in Islamabad, Nov. 27, 2007

Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, once referred to his uniform as a "second skin." In Pakistan, where the military is the most powerful institution and where generals have ruled longer than civilians, that skin is a symbol of supreme authority. But on Wednesday, yielding to pressure from his own people as well as from his strongest ally, the U.S., Musharraf shed his uniform. In an emotional ceremony at military headquarters in Rawalpindi, a tearful Musharraf handed the baton to a loyalist, General Ashfaq Kyani, saying, "I have loved this army."

Musharraf is just making a strategic retreat, however. His departure from the military clears the way for him to take up a second five-year term as President, and wins him points both at home and abroad. But praising Musharraf for stepping down as army chief is akin to praising the honesty of a thief, who, having stolen and broken a priceless vase, returns it in pieces, with apologies.

Musharraf took power in a military coup eight years ago, vowing to stay on only as long as it took to stamp out corruption and repair the economy. He has delivered somewhat on both fronts. But his other major pledge — to not "allow the people to be taken back to the era of sham democracy, but to a true one" — rings hollow. Musharraf has bequeathed to Pakistan a tattered constitution, patched with amendments and filled now with so many loopholes justifying his rule that it better resembles a crocheted doily, ready to be thrown over whatever ugliness the next ruler creates in the pursuit of power.

In recent weeks, Musharraf has restored some of the rights he snatched away when he declared what amounted to martial law on Nov. 3. He has even permitted former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to return from exile in order to contest elections, which even if held under emergency rule, have some semblance of being free and fair.

But democracy is about more than casting a vote. It's about building lasting institutions such as a free press, an effective legislature and, most importantly, an independent judiciary. By circumventing the constitution, and by twice dismissing the Supreme Court, Musharraf has inflicted long-term damage on the country. Given Pakistan's critical role in the global war on terror, his muscular methods for stabilizing a fractious nation were at first welcomed by some governments, especially Washington. Establishing a lasting, fair and resilient democracy, however, requires not expediency but hard work, compromise and consensus-building. The rule of law is critical, for if a leader puts himself above the law, then stability only lasts for as long as he is in power.

It was Musharraf's sacking of the independent-minded Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on March 9 that launched Pakistan's largest genuine people's movement in decades, and tipped the general into a downward spiral of decreasing popularity. In support of Chaudhry, the nation's black-suited lawyers took to the streets. They were joined by ordinary Pakistanis, who showered Chaudhry with rose petals and gathered by the tens of thousands to hear the unassuming judge give speeches on the finer points of constitutional law. Few understood the arcane legalese he used to describe his cases against extra-judiciary detentions or suspicious privatization schemes. But they did understand that Chaudhry was standing up for a system aspiring to treat all Pakistanis equally, irrespective of background or status, that it wasn't who Chaudhry was but what he represented — a society rooted in enduring institutions rather than capricious personalities.

The Pakistan Institute of Public Opinion, the local affiliate of Gallup International, recently posited a mock presidential poll between Musharraf and Chaudhry. Among those who voted, 70% chose the chief justice over the President. "It is not a choice between two persons," said Gallup Pakistan's Ijaz Shafi Gilani. "The results of this simulated contest show a massive preference for the rule of law as opposed to martial law. In its resolve to uphold the rule of law, the civil society of Pakistan has never been so united before." But that common, shared desire is being ignored.

When Musharraf took power in his 1999 coup, he quoted Abraham Lincoln, saying that sometimes you need to amputate a limb to save a life. On the day he imposed emergency rule, he repeated the reference to justify his actions. The only problem is, amputated limbs don't grow back.