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After a calm coup, Pakistanis celebrate

The public expresses relief at Tuesday's ouster of Prime Minister

As he drove by in his cab, Nisar Ali raised a 'V' for victory sign, waving to a group of soldiers outside Islamabad's international airport.

Stopping at a gas station for a fill-up, Mr. Ali gestured to the attendant and grinned. "I'm so happy today. Nawaz Sharif is gone."

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Ali was just one of the many Pakistanis who were celebrating the downfall of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government, removed in a military coup on Tuesday. Mr. Sharif for months has been growing increasingly unpopular at home, mainly due to Pakistan's increasing economic weakness. Relations with the military have also eroded, particularly following Sharif's decision last July to withdraw from the Kashmir conflict with India.

Across the country, a general calm presided as many people stayed at home the day after Sharif abruptly dismissed Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf and Army troops quickly moved to take control. In a predawn address yesterday, General Musharraf told the country, "For the moment, I only wish to assure you that the situation in the country is perfectly calm, stable, and under control." In anticipation of a run on the banks, yesterday was declared a public holiday. Pakistan's stock markets were also closed to prevent panic selling.

Analysts said Sharif's government's failure to collect taxes of 354 billion rupees ($7 billion), which was the target during the July-June financial year, meant that resources earlier allocated for developmental projects had to be withheld. Collections at the end of the year were about 18 percent behind target.

Sharif was criticized by business leaders, asking not to be identified, who argue that his government failed to encourage new foreign investment in Pakistan. Many companies have decided to take their business elsewhere, because Sharif's government acquired a reputation of being a regime that did not fulfill its promises on policy matters. As a result, total direct foreign investment in Pakistan during the last financial year was only $360 million, or almost 40 percent below the previous year.

While Pakistani public reaction to the military coup was generally one of welcome, the businessmen note that the government installed by Musharraf, the military chief, would have to address issues that are important to the general public - such as improving health-care access and education for the impoverished.

Says Ghazi Salahuddin, a widely read newspaper columnist, "The real challenge facing the new government would be to improve the quality of life for people. A government which improves the lives of the people would be the one that would gain legitimacy."

Senior government officials however noted that the initial reaction from countries outside the world, including the US, which condemned the coup, was the first and possibly a knee-jerk reaction to the military takeover.

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One senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, "The US and other Western countries would have to take note of the fact that a nuclear-capable country like Pakistan can not be forced to go in to economic disarray. There will be condemnation of the coup, but that doesn't mean that Pakistan would be isolated."

However, Western diplomats note Musharraf would have to move fast to convince the outside world that the coup he led would not be followed by a harsh rule where human rights are widely abused. Some diplomats say it was likely that Musharraf may appoint a team of technocrats, a reference to eminent Pakistanis in different fields, to run the government for a specified period of time before fresh elections are held.

Officials say that the dismissed Sharif is being kept under house arrest at an unspecified home in Islamabad.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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