By ERIC MARGOLIS
Sun, August 19, 2007
“I will return to Pakistan between September and December,” Benazir Bhutto told me in an exclusive interview this week.
Pakistan’s former prime minister vowed to leave her exile in Dubai and go home “with or without an agreement” with Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military government.
Always controversial and fascinating, Bhutto, the Muslim World’s first female prime minister, is poised to cross the Rubicon.
Will she be treated as a rebel by the Musharraf regime, and thrown into prison, or will the embattled general bow to his people’s demands and co-operate in restoring civilian-led democracy?
Bhutto confirmed she has indeed held rounds of intensive talks with Musharraf’s government, as well as with old political rival, former PM Nawaz Sharif, who was deposed by Musharraf in a 1999 military coup, and senior U.S. State Department officials.
However, Bhutto denied my suggestion Washington is trying to engineer a deal to keep key ally Musharraf in power by having Benazir and her Pakistan’s Peoples Party join his government as junior coalition partners.
“There is no agreement yet. The next two weeks will be crucial,” she told me.
But clearly, the game’s afoot. It is hard to imagine a more exciting political drama. Benazir, long dismissed as “that girl” by Pakistan’s powerful army generals, has thrown down the gauntlet to Gen. Musharraf and his 615,000 soldiers.
Will throngs of her avid supporters seize Karachi Airport to facilitate her return? Will the army arrest her — and Nawaz Sharif — on return? Will there be mass riots, or will the army split, with younger officers supporting Bhutto. Reports come to me of growing unrest in the armed forces over the $1 billion monthly Washington pays Musharraf to “rent” 80,000 of his soldiers to fight rebellious, pro-Taliban Pashtun tribesmen.
Bhutto’s life has been filled with drama.
Her flamboyant father, former PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was deposed and hanged by army leader Gen. Zia ul-Haq.
Her two brothers were murdered, her husband jailed and tortured. She has been called everything from saintly to corrupt.
This writer has known Bhutto for a long time and was often critical when she was prime minister. But you really only get to know people when they face adversity. I have watched Benazir face down every crisis with coolness and consummate political skill and not give in to self-pity, even at the darkest times, a few of which I shared with her.
She has grown in character and strength in exile and remains Pakistan’s most popular and capable political leader.
But wouldn’t a deal with Musharraf dismay her followers and sully her own reputation?
“We must deal with reality,” she politically answers. Power sharing with Musharraf, I asked? “We can get along with some generals,” comes her cautiously reply.
Bhutto says she is ready to work with Musharraf and a reinvigorated parliament to rebuild democracy in Pakistan, a process she calls “internal reconciliation.” With an eye on her American audience and the White House, Bhutto adds, “only democracy can undermine terrorism.”
She is quite right. Much of what we call “Islamic terrorism” is really violence directed against dictatorial regimes.
But who would be the real boss in a “power-sharing” deal?
Benazir is too smart to be used as a token prime minister to legitimize Musharraf’s regime. He is likely too used to absolute power to accept constraint by a prime minister and parliament. It seems a recipe for paralysis or, worse.
Musharraf would do his nation a favour by resigning as military chief and running in an honest election against Benazir and Nawaz. Democracy is Pakistan’s only fire exit from the increasingly dangerous tensions and risk of civil war it now faces.
I asked her how she felt right now. “Excited, tense,” she replied.
That also sums up Pakistan’s mood as it waits for the lady supporters hail as their nation’s saviour to return and restore democracy.
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