Meeting Musharraf (with 900 people)
Musharraf admits to 'taking over Pakistan' the same day he warns of a military coup and announces he will 'join', not lead the APML. And he was funny too.
On Wednesday evening, the ousted Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, sat at a table talking to the British diplomat, Sir Christopher Meyer, and but for the sober glasses of water, the spotlights, cameras and 900-strong audience, the two men could have been having an informal chat.
The event was arranged by Intelligence Squared, the London debate forum, and it is the first in their ‘World Leaders’ series of talks. This idea is a new beast altogether – can you clap for a politician you don’t like, laugh at their jokes, even? What if they’re funny, but also responsible for unnecessary suffering?
Musharraf was clearly well liked in this London audience. When he first came onto the stage he saluted us (in case we had forgotten that he was a military man) and many stood up in patriotic solidarity. I stood up because I saw other people standing up and wasn’t sure what else to do.
The troubling thing is that occasionally Musharraf was funny.
Sometimes intentionally, for example when recounting his mother’s success in planning the careers of her three sons: “we are all exactly where she wanted us to be,” he said with a grin.
But far more disturbing were the blunders, the times when I thought, “I can laugh because I’m not living in Pakistan, but if I were, I might cry.”
Musharraf said that the economy was the “backbone” of all progress in any country, that nothing could be achieved without a stable economy, which is why Pakistan is still a “graveyard of development projects.” Moments later the former President joked, “I’m not such an economist; I learn these things on the job.” And later, referring to the beginning of his presidency he explained:
“I was the army chief for one year before I took over the country…I mean to say, before the country was handed over to me.”
There could be no taking back those words, that pause and the muffled laughter from the audience seemed as much a response to the shocking admission contained in these words as to the strange, guilty hilarity of hearing them said out loud.
Meyer wanted to know why Musharraf, who confessed to being “moulded by the army”, thought himself well qualified to be a civilian leader. Musharraf said that the “decisiveness and boldness” that are hardwired in the military are good qualities for civilian leadership, and then, warming to the topic, he spoke of “responsibility”, “courage” and other rousing words that trip easily off an army general’s tongue.
From where I was sitting Musharraf looked small and smart, decidedly un-rugged, as though he’d be more at home in an office than on the battlefield. At age 67 he could easily change his schedule from ‘become Pakistan’s president (again)’ to ‘retire in America and give occasional talks to adoring fans.’
But he said that Pakistan needs “decent politics”, and despite the personal risk (one’s country is “bigger than self”), he felt the duty to go back. The audience was surprised to hear that his political announcement today, October 1st, would be to join, rather than lead, the ‘All Pakistan Muslim League’.
Musharraf’s loyalty to the army did not sound diminished as he talked to Meyer on Wednesday, and certainly many people believe he owes the army his presidency. His own story of his 1999 ascension to the presidency (or, as it happened, his landing on to it from on high) takes the form of an almost farcical dinner-party anecdote. He was sacked as chief of the army, mid-air, on his way back from Sri Lanka, and not allowed to land on Pakistan soil. But the army, supported by a great chorus of civilians, asserted the need for Musharraf to run the country. When the plane finally landed, he stepped out of it as president.
If he gets the chance to be a civilian president, he would want the army to have a role in government. The army is the most organised and well-trained organisation in Pakistan, he said, and civilians always “seek the help of the army when things are going wrong.” The army has previously been unable to respond to these civilians because they have no constitutional power. There should also be a military chief who can put “checks and balances” on the presidency, Musharraf said. Aware of his western audience, he added, “I know this is not acceptable to western democracy, but I always say democracy should be tailored to the local situation.”
How much security is enough for a Pakistani politician?
Musharraf said that there could never be sufficient security where are people willing to blow themselves up to kill you. In Benazir Bhutto’s assassination case, he has “no regrets” about her security provisions, it was as adequate as it could have been, but Bhutto herself took an unnecessary risk when she raised her head through the roof hatch of the car.
Musharraf had no qualms blaming the west for the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They were armed and incited to violence by western powers using them in their fight against the Soviets. And now, he is openly critical of the US war strategy in Afghanistan, saying that setting an exit date is a “weak message” at a time when strength and resolve are needed.
At the end of the talk there was again the divide between standing supporters and seated dissenters, and this time I stayed seated. Why? Perhaps to even out the averages. I can respect him for taking part in the Intelligence Squared event, because that shows a certain amount of courage – the talk was televised and the audience could have asked him anything. But he showed a politician’s ability to evade the question if he needed to. And then sometimes he betrayed a directness that seemed naïve in a politician.
I don’t know if Musharraf will get into power again, or if he is planning a coup; for me the real test of his character is in how he carries his light-heartedness when he is not talking the easy rhetoric of bravery and courage. Can we laugh at his jokes and not feel like co-conspirators?