November 4, 2007

Pervez Gets Shakespearean (Update: Elections Delayed)

Pervez Musharraf's seizure of power yesterday did not extend as far as feared, but instead falls in a legal gray area. The assemblies continue to operate and the status of press freedom remains unchanged, according to the Guardian's Ali Eteraz. However, Musharraf appears to have taken a page from Shakespeare's Henry VI, and rounded up all the lawyers:

Traditionally, a PCO [Provisional Constitutional Order] is an order which suspends the constitution and dissolves all fundamental rights as well as legislation and judiciary, installing martial law. Except that Musharraf's PCO only dissolves the judiciary (for overstepping its limits and interfering with the war on terror) while leaving the Assembly intact. The limited scope of the PCO means the current situation is something less than martial law. Yet it cannot rightly be called an emergency either, because that does not involve a PCO. This in-between situation is being called "emergency plus". ...

The emergency comes shortly before a series of petitions were to be heard by the Pakistani supreme court. These petitions would have questioned: Musharraf's standing to run for president in the forthcoming elections while staying in uniform; the waiving of the corruption charges against former prime minister Benazir Bhutto; and the legality of Musharraf's re-exiling of former conservative prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The date for argument was set for Friday, November 3, but was recently moved to the November 5 and 6. Obviously, in this Machiavellian stroke, Musharraf has pre-empted the hearing.

The last act of the sitting supreme court - which was hardly a non-political actor itself - was to issue a ruling stating that Musharraf's actions were illegal. It urged all superior judges to resist taking an oath under Musharraf's PCO. However, as it stands, four supreme court justices have taken an oath to uphold Musharraf's PCO.

Musharraf's PCO doesn't even cancel the upcoming legislative elections. In fact, he assured Pakistanis that those would run on schedule. It only affects the legislature and the lawyers, a group which had -- in Musharraf's opinion -- become too political in recent months.

Eteraz believes that the Pakistanis will welcome the change, or at least a significant portion of them. Businesses still operate freely, and the media still can publish more or less what they want. Pakistanis want stability, and many of them believe that Musharraf is the only one who can bring that. Some even want him to act more like a dictator, although in a secular manner rather than the radical Islamism of General Zia al-Haq.

Musharraf believes that the judiciary has too many Islamist sympathizers and has deliberately interfered with his war against them. His move against the Chief Justice earlier this year intended to send a message to the legal community to butt out of the war against the radicals. Instead, the judiciary sent a message back to Musharraf, which was that he could not change their nature through a single act of censure. Musharraf apparently heard that message and decided to escalate, negating the legal community's standing in the country and determining to rebuild it without the Islamist sympathizers.

Whither Benazir Bhutto in all of this? Earlier this week, she decided -- oddly -- to take a trip to Dubai after dramatically ending her exile days earlier. Her absence certainly appears timed to absolve her of collusion in Musharraf's declaration of war on the lawyers, and it allows her to return on a cloud of sanctity if she desires. Will she do so -- or was this part of the agreement that brought her back to Pakistan? Her protestations, or lack thereof, should prove rather interesting in the days ahead.

Read all of Eteraz' analysis. Musharraf's Shakespearean moves are a little more complex than first appearances indicated.

UPDATE: The elections will be delayed after all, and some opposition party figures have been rounded up with the lawyers:

Police detained hundreds of Pakistani opposition figures and lawyers on Sunday as military ruler President Pervez Musharraf tried to stifle the outcry over his imposition of a state of emergency.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said national elections, due in January, might be rescheduled because of General Musharraf's decision on Saturday to announce emergency rule, which was condemned by the United States and other Western allies.

It looks like the "opposition figures" mostly belong to exiled Islamist Nawaz Sharif's party. Qazi Hussein Ahmed, another Islamist, called for protests in the streets to overthrow Musharraf in Lahore. He may run into Musharraf's new speech law, which gives a three-year sentence to anyone "that defames, and brings into ridicule or disrepute the head of state".

This doesn't look like a "mini-martial law" or limited PCO now.

UPDATE: Henry VI, not Richard III. Thanks to Coriolan for the correction in the comments.


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