TOPICS > Politics

Reporter’s Notebook: Pakistanis Ponder Musharraf’s Future

August 28, 2007 at 5:35 PM EDT

SIMON MARKS: Once again, from Pakistan, where the daily call to prayer can be heard in cities across the country, I’m Simon Marks, producer for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. And with me here once again is the NewsHour’s senior correspondent, Margaret Warner. And we are continuing our reporting journey across Pakistan.

Margaret, we spent the first couple of days in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, it’s different from any other Pakistani city. We sense very much a company town, like Washington D.C., in a way.

MARGARET WARNER: It even feels a little bit like Washington, Simon. Unlike the teeming crowded, somewhat chaotic cities we associate with this part of the world, this city, which was built from scratch out of the jungle in the sixties, has these broad, tree-lined boulevards, low buildings, marble government structures. The streets are remarkably clean. There are no public buses allowed because they would spew too much pollution, so people jump on and off these privately operated jitneys, and it feels like a ghost town on weekends, when the bureaucrats aren’t working.

SIMON MARKS: And as in Washington, the people are completely obsessed with politics. They have been for a good, long while. They have been especially obsessed with politics given very wild political situation that seems to be developing day by day here.

MARGARET WARNER: In fact, it seems, wherever we’ve been these first couple of days, I mean, the homes of the well-connected and powerful in Islamabad, or the teeming markets of Rawalpindi, which is just down the road. In shops, in restaurants, at a gala opening we went to of the new National Museum of Art, the conversations are remarkably the same: What’s going to happen to Pervez Musharraf, the general who became their president in a coup eight years ago? Can he get himself out of the box he’s in? Almost no one has any hard and fast information. But the newspapers are filled with these breathless reports, and they offer plenty of fodder for speculation.

SIMON MARKS: And, the stories often contradict each other. Yesterday, the news had four pieces on its front page, with headlines like “Make or Break Time for Musharraf.” The lead story of this morning’s Daily Times was “I Won’t Let Eight Years Go to Waste, Musharraf.” But the lead story in this morning’s edition of Dawn said “Musharraf May Trade His Army Post for Reelection.”

MARGARET WARNER: And if that’s true, Simon, that’s a big scoop. Now, according to that story, the emissaries that Musharraf sent to London to meet with two major rivals, the exiled former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, these emissaries agreed Musharraf will take office army uniform before standing for reelection. Though, how and when that would play out in this complicated reelection schedule they’ve got ahead wasn’t clear. If the two former prime ministers would guarantee that a new legislature they’ll probably be elected to will then reelect Musharraf as a civilian president for another five years.

Now, don’t try to diagram that. It’s too complicated, and it’s fair to say in this hot-house atmosphere, with so little real information, it’s hard to know what to believe.

SIMON MARKS: Which, of course, makes it even harder, presumably, for an average Pakistani who’s not part of the political community, political elites, to follow this. What are they supposed to make of all of this?

MARGARET WARNER: And that’s been hard for us to ascertain in Islamabad, since it’s so filled with politically connected types, but remember at the art museum opening the other night, the one sculptor with the pony tail? Who said to us, when we asked what he thought was going on, what he thought Musharraf should do, he said, “look, I don’t even read the papers. It’s just politicians playing games. I don’t believe any of it.”

SIMON MARKS: That museum gallery was striking, given that it was an indication of artistic freedoms being expanded albeit by a military president who was himself has shown up on Saturday to open the exhibit.

MARGARET WARNER: It certainly was a remarkable event. I mean, it was the opening of Pakistan’s first-ever National Art Museum here in Islamabad. And it’s a stunning brick building designed by a Pakistani architect, out of brick to evoke the humble building materials used by poor people in this part of the world.

I would say it would wow crowds in Paris or New York, it was that impressive, and the work inside, all by Pakistani artists, was equally stunning in every way, in its beauty, in technique, and in its edginess and in many cases, political message.

At a reception for the artists, one woman said, “I’m so proud we own this.” And I asked her, “what do you mean, ‘we’?” and she said, “the Pakistani people.” Another woman, a printmaker, whose own work was on display at the museum, said even she had no idea there was so much artistic energy in the country as a whole, so much being created, because it had never been displayed together like this. And she said, “If the people of India, if the Indians had so much, they would have made something of it already. The world would know all about it. We Pakistanis are just learning how to do that.”

SIMON MARKS: And yet, even there, as the museum opened in Islamabad, politics were never far away.

MARGARET WARNER: No, but with a very interesting twist. The night we were there, all these predominantly liberal artists and their patrons were talking about this paradox: That the museum would never have been finished without the personal intervention of their country’s military ruler, President Musharraf.

Musharraf, the story goes, and he himself told this story at the big gala opening the night before, which you’ve referred to, he had seen the shell of the building, where work had long stopped for lack of funds, sitting vacant day after day as he drove to work. He finally asked an aide, “What is that warehouse over there?”

So, the architect was summoned, and he was given a lightening three minutes to explain the whole concept of the National Art Museum and his design. And Musharraf nodded, and he said, “get it done.” And guess what? As happens in a military dictatorship, it got done.

SIMON MARKS: And that is our podcast from Pakistan for today. We are heading to Karachi, and we will report in from that city tomorrow, and perhaps we should remind people about our special coverage next week.

MARGARET WARNER: Next week, beginning on Monday, Labor Day, we’re going to have our Pakistan week. Every night that week, a different piece from this fascinating country, so we hope you’ll join us then.

SIMON MARKS: That’ll be on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer all next week and again here online. From Margaret Warner and Simon Marks, good-bye from Pakistan.