November 7, 2007

A Bhutto 'Ultimatum'?

Benazir Bhutto has issued an "ultimatum", in the wording of the BBC, warning Pervez Musharraf that she plans to demonstrate on Friday against his rule by emergency decree. Telling Pakistanis that "We are under attack," Bhutto hopes to generate a large enough protest to get Musharraf to reverse the decree and restore democracy -- but perhaps not large enough to dislodge him entirely:

Attorneys' attempts to demonstrate have been repeatedly put down with police force. However, a violent clash with Bhutto's supporters would dramatically escalate the political crisis engulfing a country that is also battling rising Islamic militancy.

"We denounce the government ban, and want to make it clear that our supporters and leaders will reach Rawalpindi for the rally," Babar Awan, a senior member of her Pakistan People's Party, told The Associated Press. ....

Bhutto said Tuesday that Musharraf's resort to authoritarian measures was a "breach of trust" with her and that the talks were off. However, she also suggested that they could resume if circumstances change.

"I think we should all come down as strongly as we can for the restoration of democracy. And if General Musharraf wants to find a way out, well the ball is in his court," she said.

Bhutto has to carefully tread a very thin line. Toppling Musharraf would not likely lead to a revival of democracy in Pakistan. It would have at least as good of a chance of allowing Islamists within the intelligence apparatus to seize control of the government, putting Bhutto and democratic activists in an even worse position than now, and forcing India and the US to start thinking about military options to secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

The best outcome for Bhutto would be a reversal by Musharraf of the PCO that sparked this latest crisis. Whether Musharraf can actually afford to back down now may be another matter entirely. His power base comes from the Army, which clearly wants more control over the chaos in the northern provinces and an end to terrorist attacks everywhere else. The so-called "old Taliban" -- the pre-al-Qaeda Islamists with no impulses towards world domination -- want the foreign fighters out of Pakistan as an end to the troubles. Allowing the provocateurs out of jail along with Musharraf's more mundane political opponents may make Musharraf very unpopular, and may make him look weak -- never a good sign for longevity in an authoritarian government.

The warning signal from Bhutto may indicate some hope on her part that Musharraf can survive a reversal. She gave him 48 hours to either arrest her, let her protest, or end the PCO and allow for scheduled parliamentary elections. If he shrugs her off, Bhutto has to join the protests to save her own credibility, and hope for the best.


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