Four days after bringing down the Pakistan government in what now seems a popular coup, Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf said yesterday in a remarkable speech that his country will pull back troops from the border with India and start to deal with its history of economic chaos, debt, corruption, and civil strife.
Saying Pakistan was at a crossroads, General Musharraf distanced himself from Islamic extremists, and asked for a "true Islam," to emerge. He also expressed a willingness to open a dialogue with India's new government, and ended with a prayer to Allah for peace that the general had written.
"This is not martial law," said Musharraf, but rather "another path toward democracy." The constitution was not scrapped, only suspended, he said. Musharraf gave no indication when civilian rule would be restored but said "the army does not intend to stay in power."
The much-awaited speech, Pakistan in transition: a popular attack on corruption
delivered in English, is part of a major "credibility offensive," designed to ward off fears and tensions that Pakistan - which has only a short history of civilian rule, and which provoked a minor war with India last spring - is more dangerous and unstable after last week's coup.
"He said the things that politicians should have been saying all along, " says Ret. Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, now a liberal columnist. The scale of the internal housecleaning conducted by Musharraf seems enormous. In what might lightly be called "military entrepreneurship," Musharraf has also begun to identify a vast range of personal and corporate wealth - most of it illegal or untaxed for years - that may be seized to satisfy Pakistan's crushing external debt.
At least 50 politicians close to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have been put under house arrest and Mr. Sharif's whereabouts are unknown. Parliamentarians have been asked to disclose their tax records. Authorities raided the offices of Sharif and confiscated business records of dozens of Pakistani firms with close ties to the former regime. More than 40 ambassadors have been fired. All four state governments were shut down.
Support for Musharraf in recent days developed quickly - an indication, say experts, of just how stifling the former Sharif regime had become. It includes leading businessmen, intellectuals, journalists, and politicians.
Maleeha Lodhi, ambassador to the US under former Prime Pinister Benazir Bhutto and rumored to be taking the post again says that the coup represented "Pakistan's last chance" before it fell into complete economic and civil disfunction.
'Too early' for talks
In neighboring India, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh yesterday said it was "too early" to discuss talks with Pakistan's new regime. "I would purely wait for the developments in the neighborhood. Until that is clarified, it is improper for me to answer hypothetically," Mr. Singh told reporters.
The longtime foes, which both tested nuclear weapons last year, have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, including two over the disputed territory of Kashmir. In July, Pakistani-backed militants took positions in the Indian-held region of Kashmir.
Singh said India was concerned about the developments in Pakistan and continued to monitor them carefully. Since last week's coup, India has stepped up security patrols along the border. But Singh denied Indian forces were on high alert."High alert implies a state of tension or a state of imminency which does not exist," he said.
While it is coming under pressure from the international community to restore democracy, Pakistan's military regime has already begun to address a major concern for many Pakistanis: rampant corruption.
Bakery cashier Asghar Ali praises General Musharraf for "getting rid of corrupt leaders who have given nothing to the country."
Mr. Ali casually cleans the counters at Islamabad's "Jinnah supermarket," as the city's exclusive shopping center for the elite is known. "We have sold a lot of cakes and pastries in the past few days," he says.
"Many people are celebrating Nawaz Sharif's departure."Pakistan's military accuses the former premier of driving the South Asian state to the brink of economic ruin.
The average income is just $800 per year, according to United Nations figures. The population of 138 million has a mere 38 percent literacy rate.
Transparency International, a Germany-based group that tracks perceptions of corruption, last year ranked Pakistan near the bottom when it comes to clean government: 71 out of 85 nations surveyed.
Taxi driver Zia Khan says, "If politicians are not forced to clean up, then Pakistan will continue to face rampant corruption."
Low level officials demand bribes for everything, Mr. Khan says, from getting housing plans approved, to getting a child admitted to a government school, to obtaining connections for electricity, gas, and telephones."If those at the top improve, then the rest will improve as well," he says.
Newspaper editor Ms. Lodhi says; "If the actions by the military government show that we're going for the fat cats, then it's a step in the right direction. Then, foundations for sustainable reforms would have been established." Says Ms. Lodhi, the new government faces important challenges such as reviving the economy and motivating people to make new investments.
Failed previous effort
Mr. Sharif's government in the past year lost the confidence of both foreign and domestic investors. Many were tired of the government's failure at efforts to reform the economy to keep the country from eventually going bankrupt.
Sen. Saifur Rehman, chief of Sharif's anticorruption drive known as the ehtesab (accountability) department, also has been criticized.Senator Rehman was responsible for investigating charges that electrical companies had bribed officials when their contracts were signed.
However, the former government could never find evidence to support that allegation. Foreign businessmen who invested in electric companies often complained about harassment.
Amid growing uncertainty during Sharif's tenure, foreign investment last year (July-June) fell to $376 million down from $601 million the year before.
Pakistani officials say complete calm has prevailed since Musharraf seized control of the country.
There have been no large demonstrations in support of Sharif. Criticism of the coup has come mainly from foreign governments, such as the United States, the European Union, and Pakistanis living abroad. At the end of last week, the US and the EU threatened to cut off most aid to Pakistan if Musharraf failed to come up with a timetable for restoring democratic rule. The US move was largely symbolic, however, as most assistance was suspended under sanctions dating back to 1990.
Pakistan also is expected to be suspended today from the Commonwealth, a 54-member organization made up of Britain and its former colonies.
Despite international criticism, Pakistani officials say Musharraf's position at home is stable, which will eventually help him to gain acceptability worldwide.
"Pakistanis are breathing a sigh of relief. While military rule is unacceptable worldwide these days, eventually, everyone would have to accept the reality on the ground," says a senior government official who requested anonymity.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society