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Reporter’s Notebook: Pakistanis Mull Government Deal

August 30, 2007 at 5:50 PM EDT
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SIMON MARKS: Well, hello, once again, from Pakistan and I’m Simon Marks, NewsHour producer with senior correspondent Margaret Warner. And we are here in the center of Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital.

As soon as we got in last night, we headed for food street, in the center of the city, where you are assaulted by a cornucopia of sites, sounds and smells, and as we got there, news, because news was breaking that after months of negotiations between President Pervez Musharraf and exiled opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, those negotiations might be reaching a conclusion, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Simon, it had been a day on intense meetings from both the Musharraf and Bhutto camps in Islamabad and London. Both camps were telling reporters they were close. Bhutto even told the wires that she’d gotten Musharraf to agree to give up his general’s uniform, but the ordinary Pakistani people we talked to didn’t sound too thrilled at the prospect of the two of them joining forces in a power-sharing deal.

SIMON MARKS: Though, those folks down on food street didn’t want Musharraf staying on as army chief and president, did they?

MARGARET WARNER: Certainly not. We didn’t meet one person, among the couples and young singles eating kabobs and curries at the outdoor tables who wanted to see Musharraf stay on in this dual role.

One young man, who was a sales manager for a big U.S.-based, multinational bank here said, “Pakistan is meant for democracy, not military dictatorship.”

Then, there was that other man out for a walk with a half dozen of his pals who actually admired what Musharraf had done for Pakistan’s economy, but he said it can’t continue any longer. His idea was that Musharraf give up the presidency and remain as army chief. When I asked, “why not do both?” he said, “because now he seems like a dictator to the people. The Pakistani people are tired of that.”

SIMON MARKS: And yet, they didn’t like the idea that the deal being suggested would get him out of his army uniform but would guarantee him re-election for another five-year term, while Benazir Bhutto and another exiled prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, are free to return from exile and seek the prime ministership in popular legislative elections.

MARGARET WARNER: That certainly didn’t seem to thrill people we talked to. When we told one young MBA student who was out for a celebration post-wedding dinner with her female pals about the deal, she just shook her head. “They asked for democracy,” she said. “Not for insiders to cut a deal which decides Pakistan’s future.” She was referring to the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets this spring and early this summer to protest Musharraf’s firing of the chief justice. “The public should decide,” she said. “Not a small group of insiders who ‘want to take Pakistan back to the old times with the same old leaders.’”

SIMON MARKS: And, in fact, the longer this deal hangs out there, 80 or 90 percent completed but not yet done, said former Prime Minister Bhutto, the more it’s getting picked at.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s exactly what’s happening. Nawaz Sharif is saying he’ll have none of any deal that lets Musharraf retain the presidency. One of his advisers in London said to me last night, “It’s too little too late. We’ve moved beyond that. It won’t save him now.”

Then, there were loud rumbles today from Musharraf’s own party members in parliament and his former coalition partners among the Islamic parties that he may not be able to count on all their votes to pull this deal off. And a noted pro-democracy activist, the most famous human rights lawyer in this country, said to us late this afternoon, “The aspirations of the people in the street was no interference from the army, and that the deal is being brokered with the intelligence chief involved. Their message wasn’t heard.”

And, in fact, the delegation Musharraf sent to negotiate with Bhutto included the chief of Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, and a prominent retired general. Now, anything could still happen, of course, and nobody should underestimate the ability of Musharraf and Bhutto to pull this off if they’re really determined, but from what we’ve heard, any deal, and, in fact, just the idea of an insider deal, is going to be a tough sell to the Pakistani public.

SIMON MARKS: And that’s going to be a tough sell, but we will continue to observe as we continue our journey through Pakistan. We’ll be in Lahore for another 24 hours, then returning to the Pakistani political capital, Islamabad.

And don’t forget, you can see Margaret’s special series of reports from Pakistan all next week on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and of course again here online. For Margaret Warner, I’m Simon Marks, in Lahore. Good-bye from Pakistan.