The Dictator Takes Up His Golf Clubs

Pakistan reacts to Pervez Musharraf’s resignation.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Click to expand.
The television broadcast of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation speech

Near the end of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation speech, the former commando’s voice quavered, and it seemed he might break down on-screen. The address, broadcast live, had lasted roughly an hour. During the first part, Musharraf rehashed some of his achievements since seizing power in a coup almost nine years ago. These included resuscitating an economy on the verge of bankruptcy and turning Pakistan into a leading ally in the war on terror. In the middle, he displayed some of his trademark bravado and seemed to be taunting the opposition, which had prepared a charge sheet to be used in impeachment proceedings if Musharraf didn’t resign first. “No charge sheet can stand against me,” he said. “They cannot prove a single charge.” But, soon thereafter, his edge softened, and he declared that he would be stepping down. Musharraf took a long pause, relishing his final moments in the spotlight. Then he bid the country Allah’s blessings, raised both fists, and, for the last time, proclaimed “Long Live Pakistan.”

Private TV channels showed people celebrating in the streets of Lahore, Karachi, and Multan, stuffing one another’s mouths with sweets (a Pakistani tradition) and dancing awkward but joyous jigs. But any widespread euphoria was tempered by the reality of the situation that Pakistan finds itself in at the moment. Musharraf may have delivered the country from a state of near wreckage in 1999, but he left his successors with a mismanaged economy and a stretch of territory along the Afghan border that has increasingly come under the control of Islamic militants tied to the Taliban and al-Qaida. When, less than an hour after Musharraf announced his resignation, I asked a shopkeeper his thoughts on the decision, he shrugged and said: “It’s good that Musharraf has left. He was here for too long, and people want some change and some new faces. But rather than a single strongman, now we have lots of weaker parties. What can they do about this?” he asked, pointing up to the blinking lights and the fan being powered by a generator.

The “weaker parties” he referred to are Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples Party of the late Benazir Bhutto, now run by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari. After being forced into opposition after the 2002 parliamentary elections, both parties emerged as big winners in the February 2008 elections and, along with a few smaller, regional outfits, formed a federal government. They were met with a great deal of optimism at home and abroad, but their arrival coincided with—some say caused—a dismal economic downturn that has manifested itself in price hikes, a devalued rupee, and a countrywide electricity crisis. When I was deported by the Musharraf government in January after writing a profile of the Pakistani Taliban for the New York Times Magazine, a dollar fetched about 60 rupees, and when I turned the lights on, they stayed on. When I returned last week for the first time in seven months, a dollar exchanges at more than 75 rupees; the price of gas has jumped by around 40 percent; and, even in the capital, rolling blackouts leave people without lights (or air conditioning) for up to six hours a day. During the course of Musharraf’s speech alone, the power cut out more than three times.

Many Pakistanis considered the talk about impeaching Musharraf to be a way for the current government, primarily Zardari and the PPP, to distract people from their economic woes and the judicial crisis that has rankled the country since last March. Sharif and Zardari had disagreed over the restoration of the few dozen judges, including former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, who were sacked by Musharraf last November when the president declared a state of emergency. Many people thought Zardari was stalling out of concern that Chaudhry could reopen some of the corruption cases against him. Meanwhile, Zardari’s popularity, and that of the PPP, fell while Sharif’s skyrocketed. But there was a common denominator: They both agreed that Musharraf should go. And less than two weeks ago, Zardari seized the moment to save both the coalition government (Sharif had threatened to leave) and, arguably, his party. Now, having toppled another dictator, the PPP can reassert its public image as the main party fighting against military rule in Pakistan.

But what about that toppled dictator? What comes next for Musharraf? For the last several days, Islamabad has swirled with rumors about how Musharraf would depart and where he would enjoy his retirement. Since he grew up in Turkey, many speculated that Istanbul was his first choice. Others thought he might land in the United States. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which accepted the exiled Bhutto and Sharif, respectively, were mentioned. Apparently, all but Saudi Arabia refused, mainly for security reasons. Al-Qaida has pledged to kill Musharraf, and whoever hosts him could well invite unwanted trouble. (Local press reported that Israel had even extended an invitation. You want to talk about inviting trouble? Imagine Musharraf crashing at a kibbutz in the West Bank.)

On Monday night, I asked Zardari if, when Musharraf paused in the middle of his speech and talked about “standing up to the charge sheet,” he thought Musharraf might not step down after all.

“No,” he said. “I predicted it yesterday on CNN. They said, ‘Where do you see him in one week’s time?’ I said, ‘Playing golf.’ “

“In Rawalpindi or in Saudi Arabia?” I asked.

“I didn’t specify where.”