It has been more than a week since President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule in Pakistan, a move accompanied by daily protests throughout the country. A former state department official who was in charge of South Asian policy warns the president and military general's action threatens to unravel his nation's progress toward establishing democracy.
VOA's Ravi Khanna last week spoke with former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Karl Inderfurth who, as a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, keeps a close eye on the developments in Pakistan.
Friday, police cordoned off Benazir Bhutto's residence, putting the former prime minister under house arrest. Her supporters were arrested protesting the emergency rule declared by President Pervez Musharraf.
Former Ambassador Karl Inderfurth calls this moment in Pakistan's history the tipping point to or away from democracy. He says he hopes President Musharraf will keep his word and tip the country toward democratic rule.
"Indeed, he said to me the first time -- I met him in January 2000 -- when I asked, when would he restore democracy. He said, 'We have not had democracy in this country. It has been a sham democracy.' He said: 'My intent is to move toward establishing a true democracy, a real democracy’."
Pro-Taliban extremists operating in the tribal areas, Musharraf says, want to create a theocratic state. Inderfurth agrees but says, by declaring an emergency, the general is punishing moderates and going against his stated goal of a moderate Pakistan.
"If that is his aim and objective -- not to risk alienating those forces within Pakistani society that also support those founding principles of Pakistan -- I don't understand why then they are being hauled off to jail, the Constitution suspended, elections postponed,” says Inderfurth. “Whatever these things are, they are not helpful for bringing the forces of moderation together. It is only dividing them."
In the past, President Bush has been one of Mursharraf's strong supporters. This week, Mr. Bush urged the general to hold elections as soon as possible and resign as military chief. But Inderfurth says Washington has limited ability to pressure General Musharraf.
"The United States does not have great leverage here. It should not try to meddle in Pakistan's internal affairs. But the United States should be seen as standing for these forces of moderation and seen as standing for a movement toward democratic rule," says the ambassador.
Pakistan's two important neighbors, India and Afghanistan, have repeatedly said that a stable and prosperous Pakistan is in their own interest. Inderfurth says the other countries of the region are also watching the situation very carefully.
"Bangladesh, of course, is now having military involvement in the caretaker regime because of its domestic problems. Sri Lanka has seen a resumption of a civil war between the government and LTTE [Tamil Tigers, separatists fighters]. So what happens in Pakistan can either lend to further instability in the region or conversely and more constructively to a movement toward democracy."
The former assistant secretary of state says he hopes at this crucial moment in history Mursharraf will follow the will of the people.