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Five Years After Coup, Musharraf Maintains Grip On Power in Pakistan - 2004-10-14

In 1999, General Pervez Musharraf seized power in Pakistan from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup. The move was widely condemned at the time. But in the years since then, Mr. Musharraf has solidified his hold on power in much the same way as that of another, earlier military ruler of Pakistan.

General Zia ul-Haq, who staged a bloodless coup in Pakistan in 1977, was a close U.S. ally because of his assistance to Islamic rebels fighting against Soviet occupiers in neighboring Afghanistan.

Now, President Pervez Musharraf is giving staunch support to U.S.-led anti-terrorist efforts, which has won praise from Washington and muted much of the official criticism of his military rule.

Christine Fair, a specialist on Pakistani affairs at the U.S. Institute for Peace, says Pervez Musharraf's rule is quite reminiscent of General Zia's time, particularly in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad.

"Throughout the 80s, we had this very utilitarian relationship with Zia where we basically let him do whatever he wanted to do internally to buttress his power, provided that we had his cooperation in Afghanistan," he said. "And (Pakistani) expatriates who see this relationship between the United States and Musharraf see a lot of similarities."

Pakistani political commentator Hussain Haqqani, now teaching international relations at Boston University, says the military's political role continues because military rule in Pakistan has never been particularly heavy-handed.

"Pakistan has always had a relatively benign military rule. It's what I would call selective military rule," he said. "And the trick is simple: they don't do acts that are very repulsive in public view. People are allowed to speak a little bit so that there is an air of freedom, without freedom actually being there."

There are some differences between General Zia and President Musharraf. General Zia was a deeply devout Muslim who put Pakistan on the path to Islamization. Indeed, argue some observers, it was that program, coupled with the support of the Afghan rebels, that sowed the seeds for today's radical Islamist terrorist movement.

In contrast, Mr. Musharraf is urbane, comfortable in a business suit as he is in a uniform and draws support from liberal, secular society. But, like General Zia, he says governing Pakistan requires a firm guiding hand.

Though he has support from the secularists, Mr. Musharraf still pays heed to the Islamic parties, which have joined in a political coalition. Hussain Haqqani says the religious parties may not like Mr. Musharraf, but they are comfortable with the army.

"In the final analysis, the only political force within Pakistan that is consistent in its support of the military is the religious political parties," he said. "They may not like Musharraf, but they like the army as a whole. They have consistently supported military rule, going back to the days of General Yahya Khan in the late 1960s and early 1970s."

On Thursday, the national assembly passed a bill allowing Mr. Musharraf to break a pledge made with the religious parties that he would step down as armed forces chief of staff by the end of the year. If he chooses, he will now be able to remain as both president and military chief.

Christine Fair notes that even if Mr. Musharraf did hang up his uniform, it would not address the underlying issue of military control in Pakistani society. She notes that the political power of the military's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, has grown under Mr. Musharraf's rule.

"Musharraf simply removing his uniform is not going to address this issue," he said. "The fact of the matter is, since 9/11 in particular, the ISI has even become more capable of managing at the tactical level local political affairs. That being said, if Musharraf does not take off that uniform, it continues to convey the signal that Pakistani civil institutions don't matter, that democracy in Pakistan can continue to be a myth deferred."

Zia ul-Haq died in a still-mysterious plane crash in 1988. But history has a way of repeating itself, and in Pakistan, it still wears a uniform.