Under the Gun

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The flight time between the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo and Karachi, Pakistan's largest metropolis, is only 210 minutes. But as passengers on Pakistan International Airways flight 805 discovered last Tuesday, much can transpire in that span of time. The VIP on board, General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's top military man, was returning from a weekend attending the Sri Lankan army's 50th-anniversary celebrations and playing golf. Once the plane took off from Colombo, Musharraf's civilian boss in Pakistan, Prime Minister Muhammed Nawaz Sharif, attempted to seize control over the military, Pakistan's most powerful institution. Sharif fired Musharraf from his job, had his replacement announced on national television and arranged that Musharraf's plane be prevented from landing at Karachi's airport.

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What the Prime Minister didn't know, though he probably should have, was that the military saw it all coming. While Musharraf was in the air, incommunicado and oblivious to what was transpiring for most of the flight, colleagues on the ground surrounded parliament and other government buildings, as well as Sharif's residence and those of a number of military and political allies. Sharif's brother Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab province, was whisked from his Lahore home after getting a few slaps from a military man. Soldiers climbed a fence to seize the national TV station, Pakistan Television (PTV), and secured Karachi's airport to await their chief's landing. The 6:50 p.m. arrival time came and went, but the general's plane remained in the air. From Karachi's control tower, the pilot was told to land elsewhere. He responded that he was short of fuel; the control tower told him to go to India or Nawabshah, 220 km north of Karachi, where police were waiting to arrest the general.

After the plane had circled for 40 minutes, both the airborne Musharraf and his men on the ground realized something was wrong. The general entered the cockpit and told the pilot to land; his loyalists at the airport reached the control tower and found the head of Pakistan International Airways, a Sharif appointee, giving the orders. The plane ultimately landed with only five minutes' worth of fuel left, and Musharraf stormed through the airport to confer with his police officers. Seven hours later, he was on nationwide television making a stern announcement: the elected Sharif government was overthrown. Forty-eight hours later, he declared that the constitution was in abeyance and that the whole of Pakistan will come under the control of the Armed Forces of Pakistan.

Democracy's Failure
For the international community, the events in Pakistan last week were something new and distinctly frightening. When Sharif's government tested six atomic weapons in May last year, following the lead of neighboring India, it became the seventh country to detonate a nuclear bomb. Last week it became the first nuclear-armed nation in history to have a government overthrown by a military coup d'état. The U.S. Defense Department hastened to note that Pakistan's atomic arsenal, believed to consist of some 25 bombs, had always been in military hands, never controlled by the country's Prime Minister or President, who is nominally Commander-in-Chief. Said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon: I don't think that anything should change.

But clearly much has changed; Pakistan's nuclear status has placed the world on the edge of its seat. Sharif was boldly, perhaps recklessly, attempting to split his country's military while its chief was aloft and seemingly helpless. That the attempt failed owes as much to the military's inherent unity as to recent moves by Musharraf to consolidate his control. Starting last month, he replaced two of the country's nine corps commanders, the backbone of military control, with men he could trust . India, Pakistan's major military rival, initially reacted to the coup by putting its armed forces on high alert. But within a few days, Delhi's leaders were making sanguine statements, apparently convinced that the coup was a domestic situation, not an immediate regional threat.

Pakistan's return to military rule also belies the notion that the 20th century is ending on a wave of irreversible, global democratization. Following the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, the 1988 return of democracy to Pakistan--which has been run by the army for 25 of its 52 years of independence--was one of the shining landmarks on that road. A nation of 140 million people had regained a large parcel of democratic freedoms and fully embraced at least one: the ability to throw out the old guard via the ballot. In each general election of the past decade, they voted against the previous government.

There were, however, at least two major flaws in the system. First, the constitution allowed the president, usually with military backing, to toss out the government at his discretion. This fate has befallen each administration: that of Benazir Bhutto in 1990, Sharif in 1993, Bhutto again in 1996, always on charges of corruption and misuse of power. (When Sharif returned to power two-and-a-half years ago with a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, he struck that provision from the constitution.) The bigger problem was that the same faces kept coming back: the political system was dominated by the parties of Bhutto and Sharif.
Which is why last week's coup was not only bloodless but popular. No shots were fired; there were no tanks or troops in the streets. None of that was necessary because the public was evidently happy to see Sharif go. Outside PTV, a crowd gathered and someone hoisted a sign reading long live the army. In Lahore, Sharif's hometown, residents set off firecrackers. And it wasn't just Sharif the people were glad to be rid of. We don't want democracy, said Muhammed Tariq, 22, a taxi driver in Islamabad. We just want law and order and stable prices. Lubna Sunawar, a university student, agreed: We feel very proud that martial law is coming.

For Pakistanis across the sociological spectrum--from the landowning feudal gentry to the vast urban poor--Musharraf and his men are not the ones responsible for ruining the country's decade of democracy. That dishonor goes to Bhutto and Sharif. Those who lament the death of democracy, says Maleeha Lodhi, a newspaper editor and former ambassador to the U.S., don't understand that it's the people who came in through the ballot box from whom democracy first has to be saved. Democracy's record in Pakistan is indeed poor. Lacking the quiet which must precede growth, in the words of Greek historian Thucydides, Pakistan's economy is in dreadful shape, and the nation is perpetually on the brink of defaulting on its external debt, currently $32 billion. Per capita income is only $483--more than India's $350 yet far behind China's $765--and bloody sectarian strife is chronic, especially in Karachi. Graft and corruption are the country's twin national sports. Last year, the quality of the civil service had plunged to such a low that General Musharraf deployed army units to hunt down funds disbursed for schools that were never built, and to make sure that water and power fees were actually collected.

Nothing is in the kitty, bemoans I.A. Rehman, director of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission. We have had a military dictatorship, we have had democracy, we have had socialism. We have reached the stage where no political theory will satisfy the people. We are a bankrupt state. Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricketer who has thus far been unsuccessful as a politician, describes the system as a status quo of thieves safeguarding the interest of thieves from the other divide. He recommends a two-year military regime to cleanse the country.

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