The General and His Plan for Pakistan

Article excerpt

The standard props of politics--political parties, broadcast speeches and rallies--are banned by the military regime that rules Pakistan. So on the first day of her local government campaign, 28-year-old Sughra Hussain Imam resorts to the Pakistani tradition of paying condolence calls. She stops off at the village homes where relatives have recently died, sips tea, chats and says fatiha, the Muslim prayer for the dead. Two bodyguards trail her around Jhang district, her ancestral home in southern Punjab.

Politics is regarded as a dirty, dangerous business in Pakistan. Most of Imam's peers have either fled the country or gone into the private sector. But the Harvard-educated Imam wants to stick it out. She'd been elected head of the district council, but was "coup'd out," as she says, by the takeover of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Now she wants to give the people of Jhang roads, electricity and clean water. Imam comes from a prominent political family. She's a descendant of a local Shia saint whose purported miracles included making a mud wall gallop. "My personal jihad," she says, "is maintaining a sense of morality in a time of immorality, and a sense of honesty in a sea of corruption."

Good luck. When Musharraf took power in October 1999, he promised he'd put an end to "sham democracy" and build a real one. If he succeeds, political power will devolve to fresh and determined politicians like Imam. Last week the general's regime said it would uphold a Supreme Court ruling mandating national parliamentary elections by October 2002. Most Pakistanis reacted with indifference to the news. Who can blame them? Since the last martial government under Zia ul-Haq ended in 1988, Pakistan has spiraled into a serious identity crisis. Four elected governments have collapsed on corruption charges, and the promises of an Army cleanup sound spookily familiar. "Every 10 years, when there's some kind of democratic upheaval, the Army comes in and says they will set everything right," says M. Ziauddin, the Islamabad bureau chief for the Dawn newspaper.

There's the question: Can Musharraf, a 57-year-old career military man, set Pakistan right? Can anybody? Musharraf is an old-school Pakistani general--meaning relatively Westernized--in a looking-glass world. In Pakistan, Army generals talk earnestly of building a civil society. Leading political leaders live in exile and stand accused of massive corruption. Religious militants oppose modernity and obscure the fact that Pakistanis are an overwhelmingly moderate Muslim people.

Musharraf's immediate goals are profoundly practical. Like the leaders of many debtor nations, the general must play to two crowds--one at home, the other the international community--with different agendas. That makes running Pakistan a challenge. He's got to pay off $38 billion of foreign debt, and build a tax base in a country where, traditionally, less than 1 percent of the people pay tax. He also has to explore ways to reach a settlement with India on the Kashmir dispute, a huge financial and psychological drain on his country. Finally, there is the turmoil in Afghanistan, which has spilled into Pakistan in the form of refugees, drug smuggling and gunrunning. Out of the turmoil of Afghanistan has come a new breed of Muslim--one who is orthodox, highly politicized, hostile to the West. "Militant organizations have been training people, acquiring arms, and now are threatening to dictate to the state in almost all spheres of life," says I. R. Rehman, director of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission. "This is a major threat."

Many Pakistanis feel let down by the country's secular ruling elite. In Karachi and Lahore, elegant housewives hide their jewels behind veils and go to listen to lectures on Islam from the Al-Hoda, a Muslim educational organization. High-level civil servants send their children to schools to memorize the Qur'an. Even Junaid Jamshed, one of Pakistan's biggest pop stars, has recently been inspired by Tabligh-i- Islam, an Islamic social organization. …