Silent Majority Is Not to Be Feared
By Mohsin Hamid
I was one of the few
Pakistanis who actually voted for Gen. Pervez Musharraf
in the rigged referendum of 2002. I recall walking
into a polling station in Islamabad and not seeing
any other voter. When I took the time required to
read the convoluted ballot, I was accosted by a
man who had the overbearing attitude of a soldier
although he was in civilian clothes. He insisted
that I hurry, which I refused to do. He then hovered
close by, watching my every action, in complete
defiance of electoral rules.
Despite this intimidation, I still voted in favor
of the proposition that General Musharraf, who had
seized power in a coup in 1999, should continue
as Pakistan’s president for five more years.
I believed his rule had brought us much-needed stability,
respite from the venal and self-serving elected
politicians who had misgoverned Pakistan in the
1990s, and a more free and vibrant press than at
any time in the country’s history.
The outcome of the referendum — 98 percent
support for General Musharraf from an astonishing
50 percent turnout — was so obviously false
that even he felt compelled to disown the exercise.
Rigged elections rankle, of course. But since then,
secular, liberal Pakistanis like myself have seen
many benefits from General Musharraf’s rule.
My wife was an actress in “Jutt and Bond,”
a popular Pakistani sitcom about a Punjabi folk
hero and a debonair British agent. Her show was
on one of the many private television channels that
have been permitted to operate in the country, featuring
everything from local rock music to a talk show
whose host is a transvestite.
My sister, a journalism lecturer in Lahore, loves
to tell me about the enormous growth in recent years
in university financing, academic salaries and undergraduate
enrollment. And my father, now retired but for much
of his career a professor of economics, says he
has never seen such a dynamic and exciting time
in Pakistani higher education.
But there have been significant problems under General
Musharraf, too. Pakistan has grown increasingly
divided between the relatively urban and prosperous
regions that border India and the relatively rural,
conservative and violent regions that border Afghanistan.
The two mainstream political parties have historically
bridged that divide and vastly outperformed religious
extremists in free elections, but under General
Musharraf they have been marginalized in a system
that looks to one man for leadership.
What many of us hoped was that General Musharraf
would build up the country’s neglected institutions
before eventually handing over power to a democratically
elected successor. Those hopes were dealt a serious
blow two weeks ago, when he suspended the chief
justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Iftikhar
For General Musharraf, Justice Chaudhry had become
a major irritant. He had opened investigations into
government “disappearances” of suspects
in the war on terrorism. He had blocked the showcase
privatization of the national steel mill. He had,
in other words, demonstrated that he would not do
General Musharraf’s bidding. With elections
due later this year, and challenges to irregularities
like the rigging that took place in 2002 likely
to end up in the Supreme Court, an independent chief
justice could jeopardize General Musharraf’s
Like many Pakistanis, I knew little about Justice
Chaudhry except that he had a reputation for being
honest, and that under his leadership, the Supreme
Court had reduced its case backlog by 60 percent.
His suspension seemed a throwback to the worst excesses
of the government that General Musharraf’s
coup had replaced, and it galvanized protests by
the nation’s lawyers and opposition parties,
including rallies of thousands in several of Pakistan’s
major cities yesterday.
More troubling still was the phone call I received
recently from a friend who works for Geo, one of
Pakistan’s leading independent television
channels. The government had placed enormous pressure
on Geo to stop showing the demonstrations in support
of Justice Chaudhry, and the channel had refused
to comply. When my friend told me that policemen
had broken into Geo’s offices, smashed its
equipment and beaten up the staff, I felt utterly
betrayed by the man I had voted for.
Despite his subsequent apology for the Geo incident,
General Musharraf now appears to be more concerned
with perpetuating his rule than with furthering
the cause of “enlightened moderation”
that he had claimed to champion. He has never been
particularly popular, but he is now estranging the
liberals who previously supported his progressive
ends if not his autocratic means. People like me
are realizing that the short-term gains from even
a well-intentioned dictator’s policies can
be easily reversed.
General Musharraf must recognize that his popularity
is dwindling fast and that the need to move toward
greater democracy is overwhelming. The idea that
a president in an army uniform will be acceptable
to Pakistanis after this year’s elections
is becoming more and more implausible.
The United States has provided enormous financial
and political support to General Musharraf’s
government, but it has focused on his short-term
performance in the war on terror. America must now
take a long-term view and press General Musharraf
to reverse his suspension of the chief justice and
of Pakistan’s press freedoms. He should be
encouraged to see that he cannot cling to power
Pakistan is both more complicated and less dangerous
than America has been led to believe. General Musharraf
has portrayed himself as America’s last line
of defense in an angry and dangerous land. In reality,
the vast majority of Pakistanis want nothing to
do with violence. When thousands of cricket fans
from our archenemy, India, wandered about Pakistan
unprotected for days in 2004, not one was abducted
or killed. At my own wedding two years ago, a dozen
Americans came, disregarding State Department warnings.
They, too, spent their time in Pakistan without
Yes, there are militants in Pakistan. But they are
a small minority in a country with a population
of 165 million. Religious extremists have never
done well in elections when the mainstream parties
have been allowed to compete fairly. Nor does the
Pakistan Army appear to be in any great danger of
falling into radical hands: by all accounts the
commanders below General Musharraf broadly agree
with his policies.
An exaggerated fear of Pakistan’s people must
not prevent America from realizing that Pakistanis
are turning away from General Musharraf. By prolonging
his rule, the general risks taking Pakistan backward
and undermining much of the considerable good that
he has been able to achieve. The time has come for
him to begin thinking of a transition, and for Americans
to realize that, scare stories notwithstanding,
a more democratic Pakistan might be better not just
for Pakistanis but for Americans as well.
(Mohsin Hamid is the author of “Moth Smoke”
and the forthcoming novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist."
Courtesy The New York Times)