General Pervez Musharraf justifies his imposition of martial law—he prefers to call it a “state of emergency,” which makes him sound like one of the sinister characters from a Costa-Gavras movie—by citing the increase in terrorist attacks across his country. There has indeed been growing militancy by extremist Islamic groups, which serves as a severe indictment of Musharraf’s eight years in power.
And yet he is using his “emergency” powers not to crack down on Islamic terrorists, but on peaceful civil society activists. As this Washington Post dispatch from Lahore notes:
Over the weekend . . . an estimated 70 community leaders were arrested here during a cookies-and-tea meeting of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Those detained included a college dean, a well-known poet, an economics professor, and a board member of the International Crisis Group.
Through such actions, Musharraf is undermining the anti-terrorist coalition that should include the vast majority of Pakistan’s people and its leading political parties. He is also casting the United States into ever deeper obloquy because the Bush administration has provided such unstinting and uncritical support of his misrule. The administration should now make clear, by holding back further aid to Pakistan if necessary, that its support for democracy is more than rhetorical.
A return to democracy is certainly no cure-all for Pakistan’s ills. The country will continue to face a determined Islamic insurgency no matter what happens. But Musharraf’s legitimacy clearly is reaching a nadir, and his efforts to suppress the extremists have largely failed. There is at least a possibility that a more popular and more legitimate government may have more success than the isolated dictator who is fast turning his own people against him.