When Pakistan's civilian politicians united last August to force General turned President Pervez Musharraf from power, the moment was hailed as a democratic milestone in a country long ruled by military men. But now, as the country's two main political parties remain locked in an endless power struggle while Pakistan's security and economic crises spiral dangerously out of control, Musharraf has stepped back into the public eye. After months of seeking solace on the tennis court and golf course, the former strongman has in recent weeks given a flurry of speeches and press conferences. He is also planning a new memoir. And lest anyone mistake this renewed publicity campaign as nothing more than burnishing his legacy, Musharraf last week raised the prospect of a political comeback.
In a rare television interview, Musharraf spoke with a calm that had eluded him during his final months in office. Still, he projected an unrelenting certainty as he defended the military and its intelligence wing, and Pakistan's policy on Kashmir, and insisted that he had no regrets about any of his decisions while in office. (In an earlier appearance on camera, a cigar-chomping Musharraf had lashed out at the widespread belief, shared by members of the Obama Administration, that he had been double-dealing Washington by continuing to support elements of the Taliban while receiving billions in aid.) Asked if he would reclaim the presidency if it were offered to him, Musharraf did not hesitate to say yes. "If someone makes an offer, then I will see if I can play a role," he said. "Obviously, I'll take the offer if I can play a role ... I wouldn't like to be a useless President who can't contribute anything." (See pictures of the rise and fall of Musharraf.)
Loyalists insist that he still has more to offer Pakistan than do his squabbling successors and that he should be restored to power. But for critics and even many former supporters, Musharraf's legacy remains so controversial that it has closed off the possibility of another military coup anytime soon.
Musharraf's latest campaign of self-promotion has provoked disbelief from a range of observers. "He's behaving as if he's done wonders for the country," says Talat Masood, a retired general who was once on nodding terms with Musharraf. "He has no idea of the legacy he has left behind. I personally think that he's as detached from realities as he was in his last months. When he was in power, he was so halfhearted about everything. There was no commitment to the war on terror, madrasah reforms, creating genuine democracy or strengthening institutions. I also think that the army will be embarrassed by what he is saying."
But as Pakistan's crises multiply, there is a small minority that harbors nostalgia for the Musharraf years, not least those among Karachi's business community who have lost fortunes as the stock market has crashed over the past year. "In South Asia," says Tariq Azeem, a former minister under Musharraf who remains close to him, "there is a tendency that when someone goes, then there are some people who start comparing the performance of the current government with the government that has gone by."
Azeem declines to rule out a political comeback for his erstwhile boss. "It is difficult to say; in politics everything is possible," he says. "For the moment, there is a restriction in the constitution that prevents him from standing for office in the next two years. I think he can still be a very useful person, because of his contacts. There could be a role for him in back-channel diplomacy, like some former American Presidents." And Azeem reveals that Musharraf may be about to raise his presence in Pakistan's national conversation through a new memoir. "When I last visited him at his home," the former minister says, "[Musharraf] said that his publishers are interested in him writing a second book."
Nobody is expecting the current government to turn to Musharraf as some kind of elder statesman, however. "It seems that the former President is trying to embarrass the government," says Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari, "but he will not succeed because of the baggage he is carrying. The damage he has done to civil society and government institutions is too great. He will not be rehabilitated."
Aftab Sherpao, who had been a member of Musharraf's Cabinet, believes his former boss mistakenly nurtures political ambitions. "I think he's interested," says the former Interior Minister. "He's been in the power game for so long that now he's lost it. He feels there's a vacuum. He feels that there are people who still look up to him. I'm sure that people around him are suggesting that these politicians who are running the country are not capable."
Musharraf's grim assessment of the performance of his successors is certainly shared by most Pakistanis. Recent polls show that the Zardari government's approval ratings have fallen to levels comparable to the lowest recorded by Musharraf while in power. The government is under fire not only for the faltering economy, but also for failure to protect Sri Lanka's visiting cricketers from a terrorist attack in Lahore last week (whose perpetrators remain at large), and for bowing to Taliban demands for the imposition of Islamic law in the Swat Valley. And the political turmoil is set to deepen next week, when a protest march of lawyers and opposition politicians demanding the reinstatement of judges heads for Islamabad. (See pictures of the deadly attack on Sri Lanka's cricket team.)
While the threat of chaos might have traditionally provoked the military to seize the reins of power, few observers believe there's much prospect today of a coup, let alone a Musharraf comeback. General Ashfaq Kayani, the current army chief, is seen as a professional soldier keen to maintain a distance from politics. And the Obama Administration is unlikely to abide another military takeover in Pakistan so soon. "I don't think that at this time and juncture it's possible for the army to get back in the driving seat," says Sherpao. "The damage done by the Musharraf years to its public image has made sure of that."
Musharraf, plainly, disagrees.