January 07, 2008
Pakistan: The Aftermath
BY Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Correspondent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Editor's Note: In her fifth and final dispatch from Pakistan, our correspondent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy wraps up her preview of an election that never happened -- postponed due to the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27.
Look for more FRONTLINE/World reports from Pakistan in the coming weeks, including reporter David Montero's video about the conflict between Taliban insurgents and the Pakistani military in the Swat Valley.
When I arrived in Pakistan six weeks ago, I found the country's civil society reinvigorated. In my hometown, Karachi, students, lawyers and activists were all agitating against President Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule. They were united in their cause to restore an independent judiciary. This was the first time my generation had witnessed a movement like this. There was a sense that whatever the outcome, Pakistan would emerge stronger. Finally, its educated classes were making a noise, were concerned about the direction their country was taking.
But things unraveled very quickly.
The major political parties parted ways with the protestors who were calling for a boycott of the January 8th elections (now postponed to February 18th). Many people felt betrayed. Their top priority was the restoration of the judiciary Musharraf had purged, not the elections. The popular movement argued that if the political parties had pressured President Musharraf, if they had continued their struggle hand in hand with civil society, the judges might have been back on their benches.
With the rule of law restored, more genuine elections might have then taken place. Instead, the election campaign felt like a shadow play with the government directing the outcome.
Backed by the U.S., Benazir Bhutto campaigned as the secular democratic alternative to Musharraf and to the rise of Islamic radicalism. The corruption charges against her were swept under the carpet, there was little talk about her failings as a two-time prime minister, including her support for the Taliban in Afghanistan. She was presented to the Pakistan people as the democratic choice.
The election campaign felt like a shadow play with the government directing the outcome.
And then came the unthinkable. Ten years from now, just as people in the United States ask each other where they were on 9/11, Pakistanis will ask each other where they were when they heard the news of Benazir Bhutto's assassination.
We were all shocked -- no, stunned. How could this have happened? Regardless of what one thought of her politics, she was a courageous woman who fought hard to keep alive the legacy of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was ousted in a military coup in 1977 and hanged. She paid dearly for her political commitments.
A three-day mourning period was marred by rioting, looting, and more rioting, as we all watched in silence and horror. Factories were burned; people were killed. Would we ever recover from this? And just as we thought we had hit rock bottom, we heard that Ms. Bhutto had left a will, and in it she had named her husband, a dubious character, her successor as head of the Pakistan People's Party.
Pakistanis wondered how a woman who stood for democracy, who charmed the West with her rhetoric about democracy versus dictatorship, could name her own successor, and a family member at that. To make matters worse, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, then appointed his 19-year-old son co-chair of the political party. Bilawal is not even old enough to hold office, how can he be heading a political party?
Since Ms. Bhutto's assassination, Pakistanis have watched in dismay as the government and the Bhutto family have hurled accusations at each other.
Since Ms. Bhutto's assassination, Pakistanis have watched in dismay as the government and the Bhutto family have hurled accusations at each other. Her husband has accused the government of not providing enough security for his wife after she returned from exile in October and he held President Musharraf directly responsible for her death.
Right off the bat, at a tense, televised press conference, a journalist asked the President whether he had played any part in the assassination of his political opponent. "Frankly, I consider the question below my dignity to answer," Musharraf responded. "I've been brought up in a very educated and civilized family, which believes in values, principle and character. My family, by any imagination, is not one that believes in killing people, assassinations or intriguing."
Instead the President laid the blame on Islamist militants with al-Qaeda links who are battling government forces in the North-West Frontier Province, specifically naming Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah. He promised to target those responsible.
Musharraf also said that he is under threat himself, having narrowly missed assassination attempts in December 2003. "I cannot say that I am very, very secure. There are people gunning for me. But I know how to protect myself."
A team from Scotland Yard has arrived in Pakistan to assist the government in its investigation of the assassination. But despite President Musharraf's assurances of a thorough probe, Pakistanis worry that the Scotland Yard team will not be able to conduct an independent inquiry into Ms. Bhutto assassination.
In 1951, Pakistan's first Prime Minister, Liaqat Ali Khan, was assassinated in the very same park in Rawalpindi where Benazir Bhutto was murdered.
Pakistan has been here before. In 1951, the country requested the help of the British government when its first Prime Minister, Liaqat Ali Khan, was assassinated in the very same park in Rawalpindi where Benazir Bhutto was murdered. Even then, the Scotland Yard investigator was not allowed to operate freely and was sent back after a few weeks. The results of the inquiry were never made public.
This being the land of conspiracy theories, rumors about Ms. Bhutto's assassination are rampant. Several text messages about the assassination are circulating across the country. They both point to clips posted on the Internet website You Tube. The texts read, "If you want to know the truth about the death of Ms. Bhutto watch these clips."
In the first clip, Ms. Bhutto is addressing the rally and a man standing next to her is seen gesturing to someone in the crowd. He then makes some suspicious gestures towards Ms. Bhutto. Conspiracy theorists interpret this as a sign that someone in her entourage was responsible for her death.
In the second clip, Ms. Bhutto is speaking to British journalist Sir Robert Frost in an interview last November. In a long, rapid-fire answer to a question, she says that Osama Bin Laden was killed by Ahmad Sheikh, the man responsible for killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Frost did not interrupt or question her about this. Most have interpreted this as a slip of the tongue. But the conspiracy-minded are suggesting that Ms. Bhutto admitted to something she should not have revealed and has paid for it with her life.
Also, in the wake of the assassination, there is more talk of the U.S. trying to impose its will on Pakistan. I had heard this from students when I first arrived in early December. "Perhaps the United States only wants a stable Pakistan, and not a strong one," one young woman told me. "If they wanted a strong Pakistan, they wouldn't impose their choices on us." I found in every strata of society, there are people who believe that the United States only insists on democracy in Pakistan when it suits its needs.
"In a country where a plate of rice buys you a vote, how can there be democracy?"
There are also people who question whether democracy, as the West imagines it, can actually function in Pakistan.
I had a conversation with Rohail Hayatt, a renowned music producer in Karachi. A liberal, secular Pakistani, who formed Pakistan's first pop band in the 1980's, he was of the opinion that it was very difficult for democracy to flourish in Pakistan. "In a country where a plate of rice buys you a vote, how can there be democracy?" he asked.
I remember traveling through rural Pakistan in 2002 when the last elections were held and meeting villagers who told me that they were forced to vote for either their landlord or whatever candidate their landlord supported. About sixty percent of the population resides in rural areas where these feudal conditions prevail.
But despite the inhospitable terrain for democracy in much of the country, despite Pakistan's history of authoritarian rule, and despite the chilling murder of Ms. Bhutto and the violence it unleashed, I can't help feeling that all is not lost. The political stirring I witnessed in early December, when Pakistani civil society came to life, taking to the streets in support of democratic rights and an independent judiciary, has not been extinguished.
When campaigning resumes for the parliamentary elections on Feb. 18, there is sure to be a sharp debate about the country's future, and how the coutry should deal with the increasing Islamic radicalism in its midst.
From Our Files
Pakistan: Burn, Baby, Burn
Pakistan correspondent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy reports from a chaotic and still-burning Karachi following the murder of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
Pakistan: The New Taliban
Correspondent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's third in a series of dispatches focuses on the rise of fundamentalist political forces challenging President Musharraf's government.
Pakistan: The"Other" Bhutto
Watch Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's interview with Benazir Bhutto's niece Fatima Bhutto, who blames her aunt for the 1996 murder of her father. Educated in the U.S. and fast becoming a prominent figure in her own right, the 25-year-old could turn out to be a serious political player in the coming years.
Pakistan: "The Liberal Dictator"
Read Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's first dispatch in this series and watch the accompanying video where she interviews activists gathered in an upscale neighborhood of Karachi about Pakistan's political future.
"Bhutto's Death Helps Further Al Qaeda's Pakistan Agenda"
David Montero reports from Pakistan in a joint project of the Christian Science Monitor and FRONTLINE/World. Watch for his upcoming online video reports, and take a look at "Disappeared," his September 2007 Rough Cut about the disappearance of hundreds of dissidents and suspected terrorists at the hands of Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI.
Amina Masood Janjua was an ordinary Pakistani housewife, proud of her country and loyal to its military. But all that changed in July 2005, when her husband never came home. FRONTLINE/World correspondent David Montero reports on how her campaign to find her husband sparked national protests challenging Pakistan's feared intelligence agency, the ISI, and led to events that would severely test Musharraf's power.