Manan Ahmed: Pakistan's supreme court decision is a good start





[Manan Ahmed is finishing up his dissertation on Islam in South Asia at the University of Chicago. His personal blog on South Asia and everything else is (http://www.chapatimystery.com) Chapati Mystery. He also hangs out at (http://hnn.us/blogs/2.html) Cliopatria - the Historian's Collective.]

The Supreme Court decisions continue to change the landscape of Pakistan's history and politics. Since Chief Justice Chaudhry Iftikhar's reinstatement on July 20th, 2007 [see Justice's Turn], the Supreme Court has released various political prisoners, most notably Javed Hashmi.

Today, the Supreme Court has ruled that Nawaz Sharif, the deposed Prime Minister, can return from exile to Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif, you may recall, was the Prime Minister whose administration fell to Pervez Musharraf's military coup in 1999. Since then, he has been living in Saudi Arabia and London - forced, he says, to agree to a 10 year long exile by Musharraf's regime. A similar exile was arranged with Benazir Bhutto. The reason these leaders agreed to the exile may have to do with the myriad anti-corruption cases launched against their persons and administration by Musharraf's government [some are highly merited - and are currently active in the courts].

Benazir Bhutto has recently met with Musharraf and been in discussions to return to Pakistan as well. She gave some details of those "power-sharing" arrangements but this decision by the Supreme Court will undoubtedly complicate, if not make moot, such discussions.

Both exiled ex-PMs Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif want to be back in Pakistan by October and running for re-re-re-election in December. Hopefully.

What does it all mean? In terms of internal politics of Pakistan, this is tremendous news for the resurgent democratic movement in Pakistan. The full participation of the many political parties - including the Bhuttos and Sharifs - will guarantee that Pakistan start recovering from the despotic military regime. However, that is easier said than done. The military, under Musharraf, has become the largest land-owning, asset-controlling entity in Pakistan with ex- and current military officials serving across the civil and social landscape. How can that military be coaxed "back into the barracks"? It is quite probable that there are forces within the military eager to curtail their political vulnerabilities. The popular image of the military in Pakistani society has underwent tremendous change in recent years - from a highly valued and respected institution (the only "corruption-free" one) to a hegemonic and undesirable presence. I could argue that the military's own interests lie in withdrawing from the political realm and re-burnishing its image and standing. Of course, the defense budget remains the highest expenditure in the country and no successive civil government will change that. By and large, the military cannot lose by "giving democracy back" to the country. That was, after all, what Musharraf claimed when he took control.

In terms of oft-mentioned "Talibanization" of Pakistan and the wider conflict with extremism, the answers are less apparent at the moment. Some certainties do exist: any civil government will continue to fully cooperate with the US efforts. In fact, the efforts in Waziristan would be strengthened by the participation of Baluchistani leaders at the Federal level [Baluchistan has always been a Federal/State controversy]. The elections will not result in any rise-to-power of Mullah Omar in Islamabad. And a democratic Pakistan will surely be a far valuable ally within the Muslim world. The uncertainties largely hinge on the nature of the elections - the participation of various groups and their freedoms to do so. It will also be a chaotic period which can make Pakistan vulnerable to further attacks and incursions.

However, the bottom line is that Pakistan needs full and immediate US support through the next six months. UN should take an interest in insuring fair elections. And the subsequent government should be cultivated and nourished throughout the full term.

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