March 1, 2005

Has Musharraf Prepared For Democratization?

Agence France-Presse reports this morning that Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf has created a website to explore his "softer side" -- a professionally-produced site that combines a bit of tourist-baiting with an undeniable sense of a serious campaign effort:

His favourite food is a spicy lentil dish, the best book he read recently was on Richard Nixon and he was nearly court martialed in 1965. Welcome to the world of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, via the Internet.

Pakistani officials say a slick new website devoted to the general, which mixes moments of unusual frankness with a glowing, hagiographical tone, puts the country's people a mere mouse-click away from the "man behind the leader".

But according to analysts, the aim is not so much to reveal the truth about Musharraf as to project a softer image of both the president and his country, after years of foreign media coverage focused on Al-Qaeda, nuclear weapons and his own unelected status since coming to power in a bloodless 1999 coup.

AFP probably has the target audience correct; the site is entirely in English, which ordinary Pakistanis probably wouldn't understand, although the intellectual class certainly would. However, the effort is what interests me. How many dictators feel the need to explain themselves on the Internet, especially to outsiders instead of their own people? Musharraf includes snippets of his thoughts on a variety of topics, little more than sound bites for future campaigns, as well as longer policy statements and press releases. He also provides a section called Thoughts and Philosophy that includes topics like Chivalry and Character, the latter of which might jar the average Muslim visitor:

As Quaid said: "We Muslims have got everything - brains, intelligence capacity and courage - virtues that nations must possess. But two things are lacking and I want you to concentrate your attention on these... We have lost the fullness of our noble character. And what is character - highest sense of integrity conviction incorruptibility, readiness at any time to efface oneself for the collective good of the nation." Today I ask you to put that national character at the service of your state. Lets prove to ourselves that that noble character is built upon and not lost.

Think of that as the Pakistani equivalent to "Ask not what your country can do for you," a call to service for Muslims to replace the call for jihad coming from the madrassas. Read through as much of Musharraf 2005 as you can; it makes for fascinating web-surfing. Obviously Musharraf has learned to respect the power of the American "street", especially on the Internet and I suspect the blogosphere. He wants to project a statesmanlike image to moderate calls for his ouster, especially after seeing how a laserlike American focus prompts our politicians to demand action.

Musharraf sees the wave coming from far off, and he's building surfboards instead of sandbags. That's all right; at least he's preparing himself for the inevitability, which bodes well for a return to Pakistani democracy.

Of course, the French news agency simply could not resist tossing an inaccurate and wholly superfluous insult at George Bush in the middle of this article:

The general appears even more forthcoming on his own failings in his early army career -- in stark contrast to the reluctance of his close ally US President George W. Bush to disclose his own military records during a controversy over his National Guard service.

Does AFP mean the President who requested the release of all his records via executive order and released all that could be found to the press? Could they mean the President who always noted that he transferred to another post to pursue politics? The one who accumulated three times the number of service points required for discharge? Or perhaps AFP has Bush confused with another American candidate who, despite all promises, has yet to sign his Form 180 so we can see his complete military record -- you know, the one who met with the enemy while in the reserves and traveling overseas.

What the hell does George Bush's military records have to do with Pervez Musharraf's website? Talk about institutional bias!

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