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    South Asia
     Nov 7, 2007
Besieged Musharraf plays for time
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - President General Pervez Musharraf put on a confident face on Monday during a televised briefing for foreign diplomats on his declaration of emergency rule on Saturday, saying that elections will be held "as close as possible to the schedule" of January 15, and that "there will be harmony. Confidence will come back into government."

Under the surface, though, the president, who had suspended the constitution for the second time (the first was in 1999 when he

took power in a bloodless coup), barred the Supreme Court from making any ruling against his administration, and curbed the media, is a very worried man.

Extensive protests in many parts of the country, especially in Lahore, where they were ruthlessly dealt with, took Musharraf and his inner circle by surprise, Asia Times Online contacts confirm.

On Monday, Musharraf presided over a meeting that included Vice Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and the director general of Military Intelligence, Major General Nadeem Ejaz. They acknowledged a few home truths, notably that in the present highly charged political climate, Musharraf's government cannot afford to open up any new fronts against militants in the Waziristan tribal areas, or elsewhere.

This means that Musharraf's support (read money) in the West, especially from Washington, will be placed on the line as he will not be able to deliver on his pledges to go hard against Taliban and al-Qaeda militancy in the country. US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have already said as much.

Apparently, some of Musharraf's senior officers candidly asked him, "What are we supposed to do?" Musharraf then phrased the same question for the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj, and Nadeem of Military Intelligence, and told them to report back to him in a week. These two men are the real architects of the state of emergency and they pushed Musharraf into following their advice, despite strong opposition from some of Musharraf's closest associates.

Lawyers in the firing line
In the country's toughest action ever against the legal fraternity, law-enforcement agencies on Monday rounded up more than 1,500 people in Lahore alone. Police were liberal in their use of teargas and batons.

Many senior judges who have refused to back Musharraf's emergency have also been detained or placed under house arrest, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. But despite being confined to their homes, these judges are providing a moral base to civil society's protests and have vowed to continue their struggle.

Interviews broadcast by judges of the Supreme Court, including Rana Baghwan Das, the most senior judge after Chaudhry, have already raised questions about the legality of the state of emergency. They point out that before it was implemented they had ruled against the emergency, for which they were thrown out of office.

Another casualty of the protests is retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, the renowned former chief of the ISI and one-time immediate commander of Musharraf . He has been arrested.

The events of the past few days have forced former premier Benazir Bhutto, sent from exile to Pakistan by Washington to support Musharraf in a new political dispensation, to review her situation. There is even talk of her switching sides - no surprise therefore that security agencies have been on standby since Sunday to arrest her and her Pakistan People's Party workers the moment they try to join the protests.

The intelligence agencies have a week to answer Musharraf's question on what to do next, and the leaders will take some time to digest the answer.

Civil society, meanwhile, if events in Lahore are any indication, is moving at breakneck speed, and protesters have shown that the bigger the oppression, the louder the reaction.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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