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    South Asia
     Apr 2, 2005
Pakistan approaches boiling point
By Syed Saleem Shahzad and Masood Anwar

KARACHI - On the face of it, the post-September 11 era sees Pakistan re-established in the world community, nurturing friendly relations with India, and enjoying political stability in the shape of President General Pervez Musharraf's grip on power, with the economy steady.

Appearances can be deceptive, though: Pakistan's economic development is "asset inflation" which could burst like a bubble, while serious fissures exist on the socio-political front.

A very powerful "Million March" in Karachi recently, organized by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six religious-political parties that heads the opposition in the country, was the first punch, and yielded instant results. Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz abruptly caved in to a key MMA demand that a person's religion be included in his or her passport.

This had previously been the case - for instance, people were identified as Muslim, Christian, Jew or Qadyani - but new computer-readable passports dropped the religious tag, and Musharraf was adamant it would not be reinstated. The march made him change his mind.

After Karachi, other "Million Marches" in Quetta, Peshawar and Lahore shattered the opposition's political lull. A series of countrywide strikes has already begun, with the climax being a call for a general strike this Wednesday.

The MMA's president, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, has already vowed that after the April 2 strike, the MMA will march on the capital Islamabad and lay siege to it.

This has sent shivers down the spines of those in the corridors of power: Qazi Hussain Ahmed has played this card with devastating results twice before. On the first occasion he mobilized thousands of Jamaat-i-Islami workers against the Nawaz Sharif government in 1993. It fell within a few weeks. He repeated this move in 1996, this time bringing down the administration of Benazir Bhutto.

The authorities now fear that the MMA's renewed political activism will mobilize religious forces in the country.

Over the past few years, since Musharraf signed on to the "war on terror", jihadi activists have had a hard time of it. They feel betrayed by the religious leadership, which has not supported them, notably in the tribal areas of Waziristan, where the jihadis tried to oppose military efforts to root out Taliban and foreign militants.

According to most estimates, more than 50,000 persons are committed to jihadi movements in Pakistan. However, deprived of a political platform and a common strategy, they are ineffective. Now, if they can align with the robust new religious-political movement of the MMA, they will get a new life.

Conducive environment
The MMA's agitation, with the huge crowds it can mobilize against Musharraf, is bolstered by every rise in prices, the deteriorating law-and-order situation across the country, and widespread opposition to military operations, especially in Balochistan against tribespeople there.

The US State Department's recent report "Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The US Record 2004-2005" has added salt to the wounds. Parts of the report are blunt. They state that the Pakistani military remains heavily engaged in politics, the government's human-rights record remains poor, and political parties are generally weak, with undemocratic institutions centered on personalities instead of policies. The judiciary also came in for criticism as being "corrupt, inefficient and malleable to political pressure". It also said "politically motivated prosecutions of opposition figures continue, as do concerns that opposition leaders or their parties are not always allowed to function freely ... Security forces have committed numerous human-rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and torture. Societal discrimination and violence against women and religious minorities persist."

An economic bomb
In addition to the problems outlined above, Musharraf faces a potential killer blow in the economy. Despite the government's presentation of rosy figures, many feel this is a game of smoke and mirrors.

According to a report of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) - the central bank - the country had liquid reserves of US$12.860 billion ($10.055 billion with the SBP and $2.805 billion with other banks) on March 19. At the end of February, the trade deficit was $2.45 billion and the deferred bill for imported oil was $2.75 billion.

Moreover, the government has borrowed money to the tune of Rs879 billion ($14.7 billion) through Pakistan Investment Bonds (PIBs) against the surety of foreign reserves. Euro bonds worth 500 million euros ($648 million) issued with an interest rate of 6.45% mature in June - and an extra 32.5 million euros in interest. Special US bonds worth $500 million are also approaching maturity.This list does not include the foreign-currency account worth $3.437 billion, which is open to the demands of account holders.

This all adds up to $9.832 billion in potential liabilities. This does not include other liabilities, such as recently issued Islamic bonds and payment of installments to Boeing for the procurement of 777s.

The country thus does not have the foreign-exchange reserves that would be needed should sanctions be imposed on the country - always a possibility should Pakistan suddenly fall out of favor with the US, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. (How Pakistan will meet the multibillion-dollar bill for promised F-16s from the United States is another matter.)

Political and economic realities are pushing Musharraf further and further into a corner.

Syed Saleem Shahzadis Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

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