London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Threatened with impeachment before departing his country and with arrest on his return, General Pervez Musharraf is not one to shy away from controversy. His rule of Pakistan between 1999 and 2008 was marked in turn by regional discord, domestic disputes and international favour, but as Musharraf prepares to return home, the battles are set to continue and indeed intensify.
General Musharraf announced that he plans to return to Pakistan to stand in the 2013 presidential election as leader of the party he created in October 2010, the All Pakistan Muslim League [APML]. Amidst a changing political landscape, there are opportunities for an alliance with Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf party and a growing desire for change in the wake of President Zardari’s US plea memo. However Musharraf will have to overcome many obstacles, indeed half a dozen court cases await the former Pakistani president, whilst all political parties in the Senate have agreed that the former army chief should be arrested on arrival and tried for treason, according to one report. In addition to this, the former Pakistani president is the “proclaimed offender” in at least two court cases.
Former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf has been in self-imposed exile in London since 2009, after he resigned from the presidency in August 2008. State prosecutors have said that they will detain him on charges relating to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination but this has not deterred the former Pakistani president who, in a phone call to his supporters earlier this month, said, “There are baseless cases against me but we will face those cases in court.”
Born in 1943 in Delhi to a civil servant family, Pervez Musharraf grew up in Turkey before he and his family moved back to Pakistan in 1956. At the age of 14 he entered the Pakistan Military Academy and a long army career ensued, he moved up the ranks eventually being appointed Chief of Army Staff by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1998. He played a crucial role in masterminding the infiltration of Kashmir in the Kargil conflict with India in 1999.
In the same year, General Musharraf seized power carrying out a bloodless military coup against the Nawaz Sharif government. He appointed himself President in 2001 and held a referendum in 2002 cementing his rule; however this process was heavily criticized by his opponents as being fraudulent. However Musharraf remained in power and even enjoyed a measure of popularity in the early years of his presidency.
Following the 9/11 attacks, General Musharraf became an American ally in the War on Terror which led to the ousting of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, despite Pakistan’s former ties with the extremist party. The US – Pakistani relationship however was mired in in accusations that Islamabad was conducting secret dealings with members of the Taliban hiding in the mountainous areas of western Pakistan, and allegations that Pakistani elements were funding Al Qaeda.
Controversy did not stop there for the general, as in 2005 the first public talks between Pakistan and Israel were held, despite extreme hostility in Pakistan towards the Jewish state, and Musharraf’s own support for the Palestinian cause. He restated his intentions to strengthen bilateral relations with Israel in an interview with the liberal Israeli paper Haaretz in early January of this year. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat in 2005, General Musharraf said, “This is a decisive stage in which we are moving toward a solution to the Palestinian question… I am certain that we are contributing to the [Palestinian] cause.”
General Musharraf’s popularity declined sharply in 2007, when, fearing a court decision being issued removing him from power, he suspended Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Ifikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and declared a state of emergency in order to hold on to power. Large public rallies that turned violent, were held in support of Chaudhry, which further increased Musharraf’s fears to the point that he suspended parliament and placed Chaudhry and other judges under house arrest. His position as Chief of Army Staff was called into question and he relinquished the role upon the ratification of his re-election, which was sanctioned by a Supreme Court made up of newly-appointed judges.
When former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December of 2007, public opinion of General Musharraf was at an all-time low. Musharraf was accused of failing to provide sufficient security and in August 2008 the opposition Pakistani People’s Party [PPP] and Pakistan Muslim League (PML) asked the former president to hold a vote of no confidence or step down, whilst party leaders Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif began the process to impeach him. General Musharraf denied involvement in Bhutto’s assassination and opted to resign, rather than be forced out.
General Musharraf believes the tide of public opinion in Pakistan is turning amidst the current political turmoil and that the time is ripe for his political resurrection. In a recent interview with CNN, he acknowledged some of the mistakes he made during his time in office, with particularly reference to his run-in with the judiciary. However despite his popularity on the social networking site Facebook, where he has some 350,000 ‘fans’ – more than any other Pakistani political leader – political commentators characterized General Musharraf’s changes of re-election as being slim. During his presidency, Pakistan’s corruption ratings improved, and there was some economic growth, but socio-economic divisions remained extreme whilst political opponents lacked the freedom to express themselves. Musharraf’s former supporters have now scattered to other parties and his nine years in power are referred to as a military dictatorship by the Pakistani media.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in 2005, Musharraf said “I am not a man who fears opposition. Opposition is always there. Every leader must move and confront the challenge posed by the opposition.” Having survived several attempts on his life by militants critical of his support for the ‘war on terror’, General Musharraf knows what it is to face strident opposition. Returning to a country already wary of his views on Israel, and still overcoming the burden of the events that took place in 2007-08, Pervez Musharraf knows that he is not in for an easy ride during the election campaign leading up to 2013.