When General Pervez Musharraf vaulted to power in a 1999 military coup, the man he overthrew was hurled into a cell in a 16th century fort near Islamabad. Some months later, Nawaz Sharif, the deposed Prime Minister, was convicted on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges. He was sentenced to life behind bars. It was only later, at the insistence of the Saudis, that he was released and dispatched into exile. In his absence, Musharraf became Pakistan’s absolute ruler.
Now, the tables have turned. The vanquished has returned to power, and his onetime tormentor faces the prospect of taking up a spot in the cell he vacated. Sharif recently became Pakistan’s first third-time Prime Minister. After barely a month in power, he told Parliament this week that his government will prosecute Musharraf for “high treason” for violating the constitution when the then military ruler imposed a state of emergency in November 2007.
Sharif’s move has arched eyebrows and set off some jitters. In a country where the army has ruled for nearly half of its history, no general has been thrown behind narrowly spaced bars for abuses of power. The prospect of Musharraf, one of Pakistan’s longest-serving army chiefs, becoming the first in jail has raised in some observers’ minds a fear of a destabilizing confrontation between the new civilian government and the powerful generals. The Karachi Stock Exchange, which had been cresting at record highs since the May general elections, plunged at Sharif’s announcement.
(PHOTOS: The Rise and Fall of Pervez Musharraf)
For Sharif, holding Musharraf to account for his actions represents an opportunity to entrench civilian power. In the 1990s, both of his governments were thwarted by military interventions. During his seven years in exile, Sharif’s aides say, he reflected on the faltering course of Pakistan’s attempts at democracy, and when he returned to the country in 2007 he resolved to prevent future military coups. Sharif’s party sees Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a model: a socially conservative party that modernized the economy while successfully taming threats to democracy.
But critics say Pakistan is currently faced with a formidable array of challenges — crippling electricity shortages, deadly terrorist attacks, a torpid economy — that are more deserving of Sharif’s attention. “Mr. Sharif should follow Nelson Mandela’s example,” says Mushahid Hussain, a leading opposition Senator. “He should forgive General Musharraf, call for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and press ahead with solving the big issues facing the country. Instead, he seems to be starting where he left off last time.”
Musharraf’s return to Pakistan this year, after his own four years in self-imposed exile to London and Dubai, seems to have been doomed from the moment he stepped off the plane in Karachi. The welcome he craved, hoping to leverage his much publicized Facebook following, failed to materialize. Soon after, the courts began beckoning, forcing him to appear before judges he had sacked when he imposed the state of emergency.
(MORE: Nawaz Sharif’s Return to Power Brings Pakistan’s Challenges in Focus)
In April, Musharraf was denied bail in one of the other cases he’s facing, causing him to flee the courtroom to evade arrest. The next day, Musharraf was placed under house arrest at his agreeable 2-hectare villa on the outskirts of Islamabad. His attempt to run for election ran into trouble after he was disqualified from standing. And on Tuesday, Musharraf was named the “prime accused” in the murder case of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The current high command of the Pakistan army had quietly urged Musharraf to not hazard the journey back from exile. Their point was that it would not only damage him but would also taint the institution, possibly dragging other members of the army into his legal quandary. Musharraf didn’t listen to them then, and isn’t listening to them now. Some weeks ago, before the recent elections, some of Musharraf’s former army colleagues visited him, urging him to seek a way to leave the country before a new government took power. The onetime commando bristled at the suggestion. “I’ll face the charges,” Musharraf told them, according to a source knowledgeable about the meeting.
By digging in his heels, Musharraf has put his successors in the army in a difficult position. Under the current army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s soldiery has adjusted to a lesser, and less conspicuous, role in the running of the country. Democracy has proceeded, with one elected government replacing another for the first time in Pakistan’s six-decade history. But during the past five years, the army has jealously guarded its influence over foreign and defense policies. Now, Sharif holds both portfolios.
(MORE: The Return of the General: Why Is Musharraf Running for Office in Pakistan?)
Kayani may face some pressure from within his ranks to intervene on Musharraf’s behalf. During his three-hour-long meeting with Sharif after the elections, Kayani broached the topic of Musharraf’s fate with the newly elected PM. The army has discreetly laid on security for Musharraf at his villa. But it has resisted any public intervention, perhaps wary of provoking a backlash. With just a few months left until his retirement, Kayani may not want to taint his legacy with a risky move.
Another powerful man who is retiring this year is Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. In 2007, he was sacked twice by Musharraf, and reinstated both times by a popular lawyer-led movement. Since his most recent restoration, he is seen by the local media as a moral crusader and deferred to by Sharif’s party. The new government has appointed Munir Malik, one of Chaudhry’s former lawyers, as the new attorney general.
It’s hard to determine if the authorities are motivated by bringing the powerful to account, or simply by revenge. But when Sharif appointed Musharraf army chief in 1998, the pair got on famously. “They’re both cultural Lahoris,” says Hussain, the senator, who was a Sharif minister and later a Musharraf aide. “They have the same love of friendships, music and films.” A mere month before the coup, the Prime Minister and the army chief visited the mountains of Skardu together, breaking into a duet at one point. They even rowed together in a boat.
Since the coup that pitted them against each other, they’ve also shared similar fates. An ignominious fall from power, legal miseries, gilded but suffocating exile in the Gulf and London (where their apartments are just a mile apart), and the excruciating sight of watching the other’s political fortunes soar as their own plummet. “If they weren’t in politics,” says Hussain, “they would have been great friends.”
PHOTOS: Election Day in Pakistan: Defying Violence, Voters Make History