November 20, 2007

Musharraf Retreats?

Pervez Musharraf appears to have changed course, two days after George Bush sent a heavy-duty envoy to demand an end to emergency rule. He has released most of the political dissidents he arrested over the past few days, and the rest may be released as soon as tomorrow:

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf freed thousands of opponents from jails Tuesday in a sign he is rolling back a wave of repression under emergency rule and flew to Saudi Arabia to talk about the future of an exiled rival, Nawaz Sharif.

Saudi officials said there were efforts to arrange a meeting between Musharraf and Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister by the general's 1999 coup. However, a Pakistani official said Musharraf's goal was to prevent Sharif from returning before parliamentary elections Jan. 8.

Back home, the political cauldron continued to boil, with dozens of journalists detained for several hours after clashing with police during a protest and newly freed opposition lawyers vowing to keep up their agitation.

But there was also some relief for Musharraf. Ex-premier Benazir Bhutto, leader of a key opposition party, deferred a decision on whether to boycott the elections, which the West hopes will produce a moderate government able to stand up to Pakistan's rising Islamic extremism.

Over 2,000 prisoners still remain in custody, but not for long. The Interior Ministry announced the release of 3,400 already, but no mention of what conditions came with the release. The higher-ranking opposition leaders all remained in custody, and cricket star Imran Khan continued his hunger strike.

Bhutto, meanwhile, kept her options open. She praised the release of the prisoners and Musharraf's promise to resign from the Army. That amounts to a de facto endorsement of his claim to the civilian presidency, although a very weak one. She did not rule out participating in the parliamentary elections, which will make Nawaz Sharif a little nervous. Musharraf flew to Saudi Arabia to explain why he wants Sharif to stay put until after the elections at the very earliest.

John Negroponte's visit apparently convinced both Bhutto and Musharraf to think the situation through very carefully. With both sides attempting to show reasonableness and rationality, Washington might hope that the power-sharing deal they badly want can still be salvaged.


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