The Myth of Pervez Musharraf’s ‘Liberal Dictatorship’ in Pakistan

The late military leader’s rule was a story of contradictions

The Myth of Pervez Musharraf’s ‘Liberal Dictatorship’ in Pakistan
The late former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, salutes as he arrives to brief media and supporters during a press conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on March 24, 2013. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In recent weeks, since the death of Pakistan’s former president and military dictator Pervez Musharraf, obituaries, eulogies and even condemnations have been using a peculiar adjective to describe him. It wasn’t “dictatorial,” a word that his admirers shy from in their depiction of his “presidential” rule. Nor was it any variation of “abusive,” despite the exploitations, ranging from abuse of power to pervasive human rights violations, during his rule. The omnipresent word in descriptions of Musharraf’s nine-year-long dictatorship is “liberal.”

Musharraf seized power in Pakistan following a military coup on Oct. 12, 1999, overthrowing the government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. He became the president of Pakistan until 2008, and spent the next 15 years of his life fighting treason charges for subverting the constitution, for which he was sentenced to death by the Peshawar High Court in 2019. The capital punishment in absentia (Musharraf was then in self-imposed exile in Dubai) was overturned in 2020 by the Lahore High Court. He died in Dubai on Feb. 5, 2023, after a prolonged illness.

The Economist called Musharraf “one of Pakistan’s better dictators,” known for his “liberal reforms,” such as overturning some sexist laws. The Guardian also underscored his “liberal credentials,” a consistent theme used by the publication for over two decades when portraying the many shades of Musharraf, making him the “moderate face of Pakistan.” Similarly, the word “liberal” was used ubiquitously in American publications, including the New York Times and Washington Post, even if only to highlight the contradictions of his rule. These contradictions have long been a subject of deliberation, illustrated by Pakistan’s so-called liberal elites’ love affair with Musharraf. Of course, since the news of his demise, the elites and celebrities in Pakistan have been queuing up to pay homage to the Musharraf era as the country’s “golden years.”

In Pakistan, where “liberal” is often a slur used by the country’s Islamized hyper-nationalists, outsiders have long traced an atypical bond between the country’s elites and Musharraf’s rule, based on their mutual betrayal of progressive values. Both Musharraf and the Pakistani elite were perceived monolithically as liberals, owing to their personal lifestyles, rather than because their politics were progressive. Neither the dictator nor his elite followers ever explicitly identified with the label “liberal” at home.

As radical Islamism was taking over Pakistan post-9/11, evidence of Musharraf’s “liberal” credentials was considered to include his fondness for alcohol and dogs (one of his dogs was named after Che Guevara). Alcohol often constitutes the bar for liberalism in Pakistan, along with the wearing of Western clothing (especially by women) and the intermingling of the sexes — given that some of these lifestyles contradict orthodox Islam. Pakistani liberalism is predominantly relegated to depicting a lifestyle that defies Islamic restrictions. These outward changes rarely translate into egalitarian politics that oppose the deeper Islamic narrative. In fact, in many instances — as illustrated by Musharraf and many of his followers themselves — lifestyle liberals can be observed endorsing Islamic politics for Pakistan.

In the late 1990s, certain progressive Pakistani sectors were cheerleading for a liberal regime with actual authority to undo the country’s rabid Islamization project carried out in former decades, spearheaded by the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1970s and ‘80s. They aimed to transform Pakistan into a secular country. Musharraf’s oxymoronic “liberal dictatorship” was only a reality for those who wanted it to be perceived as such without scrutiny.

An outwardly “liberal” lifestyle has long been offered up by progressive ideologues as evidence of the “secular” credentials of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Many argue that Jinnah wanted to create a secular Pakistan but, in reality, this supposed secularism was largely limited to a couple of speeches on protecting religious minorities as equal citizens of the state. Jinnah actually alluded to the implementation of Islamic laws on multiple occasions. Moreover, his Muslim League ran his political campaign on the two-nation theory of creating Pakistan based on the religionist idea that the Muslims and Hindus of British India should form two separate nations.

Similarly, another Pakistani president and prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was considered secular due to his left-leaning politics, which resulted in his coining the term “Islamic socialism.” Yet this “secular” leader excommunicated Ahmadi Muslims, who were constitutionally declared a minority sect outside the fold of Islam. Bhutto also introduced militarized pan-Islamist diplomacy during his tenure, overseeing the Pakistani army’s bid to Islamize Afghanistan for the army’s own strategic interests, and asking the oil-rich Arab states to support Pakistan’s “Islamic nuclear bomb.”

Musharraf’s reputation as a liberal leader was also undermined by his own actions — and inactions. Notwithstanding the absolutism intrinsic to military dictatorship, Musharraf did little to strengthen democratic institutions, which could have improved overall governance after his rule, as well during it. His much-touted economic liberalization ended up being a temporary fiscal uplift that was dependent on Western interests in the region and did little to make Pakistan a self-sustaining economy. He often used his authority to undermine the constitution and judiciary; for example, he retained the country’s Islamic laws, which upheld violent penalties for such “crimes” as blasphemy and adultery. Furthermore, he aided the spread of radical Islam in the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in order to suppress ethnic minorities by maintaining those regions as hotbeds of jihad. He also used Islamist groups to drive the Pakistani military’s strategic interests regionally and domestically. This ushered in Pakistan’s de facto “Talibanization,” when madrassas (Islamic seminaries) preaching militant Islam spread nationwide, leading to both a rise in jihadist terror and further Islamization of the country’s social fabric.

“Liberal Pakistan” was a facade created due to the political circumstances of the time, including the U.S.-led “War on Terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, punctuated by George W. Bush’s supposed threat of bombing Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” if Islamabad did not ally with Washington. The U.S. needed the label of a progressive Pakistan to justify its blatant support for a military regime at a time when the majority of the formerly colonized world was embracing democracy. The military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq had radically Islamized Pakistan in the 1980s, while, in parallel, Saudi-U.S. petrodollars were being heavily invested in jihad in the region, since Washington wanted to curtail Soviet expansionism, while Riyadh sought to counter Iran and its Shiite Islamist proxies. Musharraf similarly aimed to create an image of Pakistan as being in line with the United States’ vision. “Like all dictators, Musharraf sought legitimacy by aligning himself with global powers,” Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, former Federal Secretary at Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production, told New Lines.

A famous catchphrase used by Musharraf was “enlightened moderation,” which he often repeated in op-eds for American newspapers and during television addresses in Pakistan, as though referring to a more moderate approach to political Islam. For Muslims, it meant shunning extremism and adopting the path of “socioeconomic uplift,” while, for the West, it was a call to resolve political disputes and aid in “socioeconomic betterment.” Because references to terms such as “secular” or “liberal” would have alienated the predominantly Islamized populace, “enlightened moderation” was vague enough to mean different things to different audiences. It also appeased those concerned about the absolutist policies of civilian leaders.

After the PML-N party achieved a landslide triumph in the 1997 elections, Nawaz Sharif sought to empower himself as a Saudi-esque leader of the Muslim faithful. His Sharia Bill sought to formalize Pakistan as an Islamic theocracy, granting absolute power to an Islamic ruler. As a result, support for Musharraf’s takeover on Oct. 12, 1999, came from several political leaders from the opposition, including Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan. Soon, Musharraf put together his very own Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), or the “King’s Party.” However, as Pakistan’s president, he oversaw elections that were a sham, violated the constitution, suppressed the judiciary and subjugated the people’s will.

During the 2002 general elections, the two largest political parties, PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), were sidelined, and polls were manipulated to ensure the triumph of the PML-Q, or King’s Party. Musharraf had breached the constitution by orchestrating the military coup and then simultaneously holding the positions of both president and army chief. Toward the end of his term, he was confrontational with the judiciary; he continued to sack judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, for challenging his policies.

“Musharraf was predominantly interested in self-empowerment, which he achieved by crushing democracy and destroying national institutions, which did immense damage to Pakistan. And while he appeared to profess liberal values, Pakistan at the time was rapidly undergoing Talibanization,” states Lt. Gen. Masood.

The perceived progressiveness in Musharraf’s personal and familial life might have pushed his liberal credentials forward. At the same time, he had a unique opportunity to use global backing coupled with absolute power to reconstruct a more socially pluralistic Pakistan. “He had the power to do away with Hudood laws, the blasphemy laws. He could have put Pakistan on course towards becoming a secular state. He did not, because he was playing a double game,” the human rights activist Tamina Mirza (who has organized multiple protests against Islamist radicalism and jihadist violence over the past decade) told New Lines. The Hudood Ordinances were enacted in 1979 by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, which criminalized adultery and fornication and introduced whipping, amputation and stoning to death as punishments. Women were required to produce four witnesses to ensure convictions in rape cases. If unable to do so, they were imprisoned. By 1988, over 6,000 women were in jails all over the country under the new laws.

Musharraf’s regime mildly amended the Hudood laws via the Protection of Women Bill in 2006, which removed the requirement to produce four witnesses. However, the Pakistan Penal Code and the constitution, which continued to uphold laws such as death for blasphemy and violent penalties for adultery, remained the same. The prevalence of rape sanctioning, despite the women’s rights bill, can be seen in Musharraf’s own remarks on the gang rape case of Mukhtar Mai in 2002, which caught the eye of the international press. The gang rape was sanctioned by the tribal council of a local Baloch clan in Punjab as a form of “honor revenge” to settle a dispute between two clans. According to local custom, the woman would be expected to commit suicide after the rape. However, Mai decided to pursue a case against her rapists, which was widely reported in the media.

As the case became a talking point in Pakistan and elsewhere, Musharraf put travel restrictions on Mai to prevent her from addressing conferences on violence against women because “it would have tarnished Pakistan’s image.” In 2005, Musharraf told the Washington Post, “This has become a money making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.” He referred not only to Mai’s 2002 case but also the rape of Dr. Shazia Khalid in 2005 in a heavily guarded, government-owned natural gas plant in Balochistan’s Dera Bugti. Khalid’s accused rapist was an army officer whom Musharraf publicly pronounced “not guilty.”

“Many liberals argue that women were being liberated under Musharraf. How are women going to be liberated by such views espoused by leaders, whether it’s Musharraf’s comments on rape being a ‘moneymaking’ business, or Imran Khan saying ‘men are not robots’ [regarding women wearing revealing clothes]?” counters Mirza, the human rights activist.

Following his exit in 2008, Musharraf argued that violent Islamist laws such as those pertaining to blasphemy could not be changed, because people in Pakistan were “extremely sensitive” about them. However, one reason he never showed any interest in undoing changes brought about during Pakistan’s Islamization drive was that he would have had to rein in the excesses of the military, which he justified for security reasons. Pakistan’s army has relied on conflict with India to hike defense budgets and security turbulence in the region in order to seek Western aid. Without terrorist groups and the superstructure enabling their creation, the military’s power and resources would diminish. All Pakistani army chiefs since Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, including Musharraf, have argued that Pakistan entered the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in alliance with, or at the behest of, the U.S. However, Pakistan’s bid to jihadize Afghanistan predated America’s move to thwart Soviet expansion in about 1979.

Post-1971, after the separation of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, the military drawing board in Rawalpindi was dominated by ambitions to control Afghanistan via terror assets and to gain strategic depth. This was an extension of the Pakistani army’s use of the mujahideen to target India, a plan conceived after Partition, during the first Indo-Pakistan War of 1947-48. Musharraf was being touted as a harbinger of progress in India-Pakistan ties, especially when he famously shook hands with India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Kathmandu, Nepal, at a summit in 2002. However, in 2008, the Islamist militant organization Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) targeted India’s Mumbai in a notorious terrorist attack, when 10 of its members carried out 12 coordinated shootings and bombings across the city for four days. Later, in 2017, Musharraf called himself the “greatest supporter of LeT.”

Even so, many recall a genuinely open phase in India-Pakistan ties in the early 2000s, which benefited from the progress in Islamabad’s relations with New Delhi. (Of course, it is easier to achieve progress in relations under military rulers, who don’t need to worry about the political costs.) Successive cricket series between Pakistan and India were played between 2004 and 2007, along with innumerable cultural exchanges, especially through cinema and music. Pakistani actors starred in Indian movies; musicians regularly held concerts in India. The Pakistani rock band Roxen composed music for the Indian film “Awarapan.” Another popular rock band, Call, made music for “Ek Chalis Ki Last Local.” The popular pop band Strings did a soundtrack for the film “Zinda” and won the MTV Asia Award for “Favorite Artist India.” The popular qawwali (Sufi devotional music) singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan also began singing for Indian films during this period. However, this cultural exchange between countries, which had been on the rise over the years, came under attack after the terrorist attacks by the Pakistan-based militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed on the Indian army in Kashmir in 2019. It was Musharraf who helped foster these jihadist groups, both as army chief and as military ruler of Pakistan. He wanted to retain these groups as strategic assets.

While India-Pakistan exchanges were considered a highlight for many during the Musharraf years, the era also saw an entertainment boom in Pakistan. Art exhibitions, literature festivals and music concerts were at an all-time high. One of the most reiterated triumphs of Musharraf is the expansion of Pakistani media. Over 40 private channels were launched under his regime.

The journalist and analyst Farooq Sulehria, author of “Media Imperialism in India and Pakistan,” maintains that Musharraf’s bid to expand Pakistani media was rooted in his quest to rival India, because the military was unnerved by the rise in the number of Pakistanis following Indian TV channels across the border.

“Zee News [a private channel in India] was very popular in Pakistan, which was making Pakistani conservatives, as well as the military, very nervous. During the Kargil War (initiated by the then-army chief Musharraf, when Pakistani troops crossed the Line of Control border and entered the Indian side, which was described as a misadventure by his critics, both in India and Pakistan) many in the Pakistani middle class, especially journalists, were watching Zee News to find out what was happening instead of PTV [the state channel of Pakistan] which nobody believed,” Sulehria told New Lines.

Although media channels proliferated under Musharraf to counter the Indian narrative, eventually some of them found a semblance of independence, because the army could not suppress or control the new medium. The power of television became apparent after Musharraf tried to oust Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in 2007. Images of thousands of people greeting the judge as he toured the country were broadcast live on TV. It was perhaps one of the first instances in the country’s history that TV news was shaking up politics, leaving Musharraf stunned. He issued two edicts, one for print media and the other for broadcasts. They included a ban on live coverage of “incidents of violence and conflict” and a three-year jail sentence for TV news anchors and hosts who criticized the president, military or government. As a result, by the end of Musharraf’s reign, sedition charges against journalists increased, TV channels were being shut down and journalists were openly threatened with murder with impunity.

However, by that time, digital and social media were also on the rise in Pakistan. There was no crackdown on them, as there had been on TV, even if they criticized the state, including the military. Social media witnessed an all-time high between 2009 and 2016. In 2016, cybercrime laws, such as the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act of 2016, increased state control and censored discourse on social media. However, Sulehria states, the primary agent driving the media expansion was fiscal. “When your whole economy is taking a neoliberal turn, the media had to follow suit. When you are privatizing everything, the airwaves have to be privatized as well,” he says.

Pakistan’s fiscal liberalization paid macroeconomic dividends under Musharraf when the economy grew by 50%. This was largely a result of the globalization that he spearheaded, making Pakistan conducive to investment. Money began pouring in from overseas, bolstered by American regional investment due to the “War on Terror,” which led to even more economic growth. Eventually, however, the lack of structural reforms, such as making the economy self-sustaining by focusing on exports or addressing fiscal inequalities, left it in a vulnerable state.

Since much of the economic growth under Musharraf was dependent on a conducive investment climate, even though it was largely in urban Punjab, once jihadist terror hit those areas, the investments began to dry up. And because Musharraf did not empower the lower-tier government offices, or democratic institutions in general, the economy floundered due to a lack of the consensus needed to sustain a democratic economy. Much of this development was not only channeled into urban centers; it was predominantly centered in the Punjab province, while other provinces experienced the worst of Musharraf’s failures.

In Karachi, the capital of Sindh and the country’s largest metropolis, Musharraf aided the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in militarizing itself to fan ethnic volatility. MQM claims to represent the Urdu-speaking Muhajirs, who migrated from various parts of India during Partition. Musharraf was a Muhajir as well; his family hailed from Delhi. MQM’s militant wings targeted Sindhis, Pashtuns and others in Karachi, while jihadist groups targeted MQM itself, with the help of the regime’s “Good Taliban and Bad Taliban” policy, which categorized jihadists as good or bad based on whether they allied with Pakistan or opposed it. This led to an expansion of the jihadist cells in Karachi, considered the country’s economic center.

Prior to this, most of these jihadist networks were limited to the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which led to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan becoming epicenters of jihadist terror. In Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, decades of economic exploitation led to the resurgence of Baloch separatism. Balochistan’s natural resources, such as natural gas, have been used by the country for decades, but its benefits have not been passed on to the locals.When the tribal chief Akbar Bugti demanded increased control over Balochistan’s economic resources in the form of greater revenue shares and local ownership of the gas, gold and copper reserves, he was killed in a military operation in 2006. In turn, his murder unleashed a new wave of separatist militancy in the region.

“There was chaos after Bugti’s assassination. Bugti is remembered as a person who stood against a dictator. I can say this for all of those who are living in Balochistan, and who left in fear of being prosecuted: Musharraf didn’t leave any legacy behind. He will be remembered as a man who tried to break us but failed,” New Lines was told by the Baloch activist Maleeha Mengal, who works in the nonprofit sector, concentrating on ethnic minorities and digital rights.

Mengal insists that the traditional secular ethos of Balochistan was deliberately eroded by Musharraf to maintain the province’s volatility for jihadist power plays. “The capital city of Quetta, pre-1999, was this small, multi-ethnic, multi-religious city, where everyone lived in harmony. We didn’t care about anyone’s surname or their religious affiliations. One of the biggest changes Musharraf brought was discrimination within this entire region and the identification of persons based on their ethnicity and faith,” she added. The Sunni Islamist radicalization was especially perilous for the local Shiite Hazara community in Balochistan. Moreover, ethnic Baloch were suspected by default of being militant separatists, and many were abducted by the state. The missing persons tally rose to 45,000 during this time.

In addition to attacks on non-Muslim minorities, such as Christians and Hindus, killings of Shiites and Ahmadis increased in Pakistan, along with terrorist attacks. Despite the military regime’s efforts to limit jihadism to the western provinces, Punjab had become a battlefield by the end of Musharraf’s tenure. Even the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, and Lahore, an urban center, witnessed surges in terrorist attacks and bombings. The 2007 siege by the Pakistani army and local police of Lal Masjid — a mosque-madrassa complex frequented by jihadists, with radical Islamic preaching and militancy spearheaded by cleric Abdul Aziz in the middle of Islamabad — led to additional Islamist radicalization all over Pakistan, especially in Punjab. At the time of the siege, Musharraf was lauded, especially in elite liberal quarters, for his crackdown on radical Islamists. However, many criticize this crackdown on radicalism for the manner in which the operation was carried out — too rushed and only in the 11th hour — thus effectively allowing the jihadists to grow powerful enough to challenge the state.

“The operation was ill-planned. The Musharraf regime had allowed [the radical Islamists] to be fostered for too long and struck them far too late, and with haste. The consequences of allowing that radicalization to spread can be felt [to this] date,” said Lt. Gen. Masood. Aziz still uses the Lal Masjid to issue inflammatory fatwas [religious decrees] and preach jihadist ideology, and his students are still involved in thuggery in the capital. The siege was in response to the Lal Masjid students’ open attacks on people in the capital for “un-Islamic activities,” which included the kidnapping of six Chinese women and resulted in pressure from Beijing to take action. Many people argued that Musharraf merely orchestrated the siege under pressure from the Chinese and did not intend to root out radical Islamists.

Other consequences have included the surge in Islamist mob lynchings, including attacks on foreign citizens. The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack resulted in a deadlock on progress in Indo-Pakistan relations. Similarly, the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, who were fired on by 12 gunmen near Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, isolated Pakistan for a decade. Overseas investment, global events, tourism — all dried up. The killing of Osama bin Laden during a raid led by U.S. Navy SEALs in the city of Abbottabad in 2011 unraveled the army and Musharraf’s doublespeak in front of the world. While Musharraf remains the last military dictator in Pakistan’s tumultuous political history, the weakening of democratic institutions during his rule ensured that he wasn’t the last military ruler, since the country is still widely believed to be run by the army, despite having a democratically elected government.

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