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Pervez Musharraf, Pakistani general turned autocrat, dies at 79

Gen. Musharraf’s rule began with a bloodless coup on Oct. 12, 1999, when he was army chief. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had attempted to fire the general, who was flying home from a conference overseas, but army officials foiled the plot, and Sharif was arrested.

By Pamela Constable


Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani army general who seized power in 1999 and ruled the Muslim-majority nation for nine tumultuous years as president before being forced from office, died Feb. 5 in Dubai, where he lived in exile while undergoing medical treatment. He was 79.


His death was confirmed by a spokeswoman for the Pakistani Consulate in Dubai, according to Pakistani media outlets. No details of his death were released, but Gen. Musharraf was battling a rare internal disease called amyloidosis, in which excess protein builds up in organs and tissue and eventually disrupts heart function.

Gen. Musharraf’s tenure as president coincided with dramatic events abroad that thrust Pakistan into sharp international focus and left it awkwardly pulled between the Muslim world and the West.

A career soldier who was a U.S. ally in a society with growing anti-American leanings, Gen. Musharraf succumbed to political ambition and used autocratic methods to prolong his rule, only to relinquish it under mounting public pressure.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan forced Gen. Musharraf to choose between Pakistan’s alliance with the Afghan Taliban and Washington’s demand for cooperation in the war on terrorism. His decision to side with the West was unpopular at home and helped fuel violent Islamist groups that have terrorized Pakistan ever since.

Gen. Musharraf’s rule began with a bloodless coup on Oct. 12, 1999, when he was army chief. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had attempted to fire the general, who was flying home from a conference overseas, but army officials foiled the plot, and Sharif was arrested.

The coup was condemned abroad but welcomed in Pakistan, where Sharif was seen as corrupt and the public had long been accustomed to army interventions.

Gen. Musharraf, who was 56 at the time, cut a figure that was difficult to define. A career army officer, he held numerous commands and served in the highly trained Special Services Group. He detested the elitism of civilian politics, which he called “sham democracy.” But he was also a well-educated diplomat’s son, a moderate Muslim and an admirer of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the army officer who founded modern Turkey.

Once in charge, Gen. Musharraf laid out a sweeping agenda of reform. He pledged to depoliticize state institutions, make government accountable, tackle social ills, revive the economy and curb the exploitation of religion by Islamic fundamentalists.

“Fifty-two years ago, we started with a beacon of hope, and today … we stand in darkness,” he declared after the coup. He cast himself as a reluctant usurper of civilian rule, determined to resurrect the failed promise of Pakistan’s founding in 1947 after its traumatic partition from India.

Tightened hold on power

Over time, he took numerous measures to cement his grip on power, yet he insisted that they were for the good of the nation. He suspended the constitution, declared himself president and forced all Supreme Court justices to resign or take an oath supporting his rule. “This is not martial law, only another path to democracy,” he asserted.

Gen. Musharraf made progress in turning around Pakistan’s debt-ridden economy. But many of his goals faced strong social, religious or bureaucratic resistance or were sacrificed for political expedience. He backed off on plans to modernize seminaries, criminalize “honor killings” and modify laws that punished victims of rape.

Within the army, his effectiveness was hampered by his background as an Urdu-speaking “mojahir,” or immigrant from India, where he was born on Aug. 11, 1943. The army’s ranks were dominated by ethnic Punjabis and Pashtuns, leaving Gen. Musharraf an outsider even among top officers. Exiled during the final years of his life, he was isolated from the military culture that had shaped him.

“Musharraf had a golden opportunity to set things right,” to “build up civilian competence and allow for the army’s retreat from governance. He missed it,” wrote Stephen P. Cohen, a Pakistan expert at the Brookings Institution. “Yet as a strongman Musharraf had a fatal flaw: He wanted to be liked.”

Gen. Musharraf professed grave concerns about the growth of Islamist extremism and terrorism. In 2002, he banned several Islamist and sectarian groups, warning that “the danger eating us comes from within. … Pakistan will not allow its territory to be used for any terrorist activity anywhere.” The next year, he survived two assassination attempts attributed to Sunni militants.

Under his command, government security agencies captured numerous al-Qaeda suspects, notably Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. This effort earned him lavish praise and aid from Washington. For the first time since the 1980s, when Pakistan helped defeat the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan, it acquired new stature as an ally of the West.

Yet the general’s secular leanings and partnership with Washington conflicted with other agendas. He continued covert support for Islamist insurgents fighting Indian forces in the disputed border region of Kashmir, and his intelligence service maintained secret ties with pro-Taliban militants in the northwest.

As a soldier, Gen. Musharraf was raised to fight Hindu-majority India. He participated in brief border conflicts in 1965 and 1971, the latter of which led to the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.

He was army chief in 1999, when Pakistani fighters infiltrated India’s Kargil peaks and fought Indian forces for 12 weeks. Prime Minister Sharif and Gen. Musharraf blamed each other for the failed adventure, but the general later boasted that it would someday be “written in golden letters.”

Once he became Pakistan’s leader, however, Gen. Musharraf yearned to make history by breaking the decades-long impasse with India over Kashmir. In 2001, he met with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Agra, but just as they were nearing a peace accord, the summit collapsed. There were charges that hawks in both countries had sabotaged it. Gen. Musharraf, who had made unprecedented concessions in his eagerness for peace, returned home bitterly defeated.

His own political ambition also conflicted with his moderate religious views and reformist agenda. The general longed for legitimacy and used a variety of methods to attain it. In 2002, he held a referendum that extended his tenure for five years, then an election in which a party that backed his presidency was able to form a ruling coalition in Parliament.

Mounting backlash

In time, his popularity faded, and his agenda faltered, yet Gen. Musharraf came to see his personal rule as indispensable. He began taking what many viewed as unscrupulous and repressive steps to remain in power — all of which ultimately backfired. In 2003, he made a deal with Pakistan’s religious parties that gave him enough support to amend the constitution, allowing him to legalize the coup and decrees expanding his powers.

Still, the general clung to his self-image as a hero of democracy. He gave earnest speeches on the need for women’s rights, universal literacy and “enlightened moderation” in religion. He courted the media with disarming frankness and was easily stung by criticism.

In 2006, Gen. Musharraf outlined his grand dreams for Pakistan in an English-language memoir, “In the Line of Fire.” The book was a defensive version of history that justified his long rule as an unfinished mission to save his country. “Pakistan is more democratic today than it ever was in the past,” he wrote. “Ironically, to become so, it needed me in uniform.” To critics, he declared, “I listen to my conscience and the needs of my country.”

The events of the next year, however, cost Gen. Musharraf his remaining credibility and forced him from power. A pivotal moment came in the summer of 2007, when armed Sunni clerics took over a mosque and seminary in the capital, creating a defiant bunker of radical Islam within a few blocks of federal and diplomatic enclaves.

Eventually, Gen. Musharraf’s forces stormed the compound, leaving more than 100 people dead. In retaliation, militant groups turned against their former state patrons and unleashed a nationwide campaign of bombings.

The president also faced a rising challenge from Pakistan’s legal community, which launched street protests demanding an end to military rule. Fearing that the chief justice of the Supreme Court might invalidate the coup and his right to seek reelection, Gen. Musharraf suspended him twice, provoking demonstrations each time.

Although he won an indirect election in October 2007, the courts challenged his right to rule in uniform, and opponents pressed him to resign from the army. Instead, the general declared a state of emergency and fired dissenting Supreme Court justices.

Despite the crackdown, the protests gained momentum, and Gen. Musharraf reluctantly resigned his military command in November, remaining as a civilian president. Under U.S. pressure, he permitted the return of Benazir Bhutto, the exiled former prime minister, who sought election again. When she was assassinated at a rally on Dec. 27, 2007, the government blamed Taliban insurgents, but critics voiced suspicion that the general had been involved.

Faced with growing demands for his impeachment, Gen. Musharraf resigned as president on Aug. 18, 2008, telling the nation in an emotional speech, “I never did anything for myself; it was all for Pakistan.”

“He came to power on a wave of popularity,” analyst Ahmed Rashid wrote in 2008, “yet Musharraf’s legacy is a tattered and divided civilian government that has been emasculated by the military, a polarized and heavily armed populace, a disastrous economic crisis … and the newly emerged Pakistani Taliban now knocking on Islamabad’s door.”

The retired general moved to London and later to Dubai and went on the lecture circuit, hinting that he might return to run for office. A Pakistani court ordered his arrest in 2011 on charges of involvement in Bhutto’s death. After returning to his homeland in 2013, he was disqualified from running for office and charged with treason stemming from his suspension of the constitution and imposition of a state of emergency.

In December 2019, a three-member special court in Islamabad convicted Gen. Musharraf in absentia of violating the constitution and sentenced him to death. He never returned to Pakistan. Officials in Pakistan and Dubai said arrangements were being made to fly his body home on Feb. 6 for a family burial.

Gen. Musharraf had two children with Sehba Farid, whom he married in 1968; a complete list of survivors was not immediately available.


Washington Post

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