By MURTAZA SHIBLI
The death of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is being mourned by millions of Pakistanis. She had a profound public base despite staying out of her country for nearly a decade and dogged by corruption and nepotism charges.
Her death, however, should not come as a surprise at all. For the past three decades, Pakistan has been turned into a "Jihad factory' under the guidance of the US and other Western powers. After 9/11 when Pakistan launched a war on its own people in the name of "War on terror', it was not uncanny to predict that the Jihadis who were nourished previously will turn against their old allies -- the politicians and the military and the innocent people of Pakistan will get caught and entangled as a collateral.
Martyr of Democracy?
Is Benazir Bhutto a martyr for democracy in Pakistan? Many of the Pakistani political parties are calling it a set-back for democracy which could be seriously contested, but her death is certainly a blow to the electoral exercise. Strangely, exiled leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement MQM, Altaf Hussain called her "martyr of democracy'. Altaf Hussain's MQM is blamed for hundreds of terrorist actions that led to the deaths of thousands of people in Karachi. The world's "greatest democrat' George Bush has claimed that Benazir laid down her life for the ideals of democracy.
Benazir Bhutto was indeed a very popular woman politician of her country, but she was by no means a democrat. During her tenure as twice Prime Minister of her country, she stifled the growth of democracy and undermined the democratic institutions. She not only concentrated in herself the absolute power of the country, but also assumed the title of chairperson for life of her political party -- Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Her husband Asif Ali Zardari is generally seen as the villain who tarnished Benazir's image through corruption and violence. Zardari, a jagirdar or landlord used his traditional violent methods to subdue his opponents and used the government power of his wife to extract benefits through his various corrupt, and often violent deals. He was alleged to be involved in the killing of Murtaza Bhutto, Benazir's brother. Asif Zardari had even maintained private jails where he tortured his opponents. This all happened while Benazir Bhutto's "democratically elected' government was in power.
Benazir's record for corruption surpassed all the pervious governments as she amassed huge assets mostly in Dubai, the UK and other Western capitals plundering the assets of her country. Her government was involved in the massive human rights violations particularly in Karachi where the MQM militants had virtually brought the financial capital of Pakistan to a grinding halt. The reaction of the Benazir government was ruthless operations that killed thousands of innocent and unarmed civilians.
Although Benazir was portrayed as the "modern and moderate' face of Pakistan who could help fighting Jihadists, this fact is conveniently buried that it was her government that helped formation of Taliban whose legacy continues to ruin Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond.
After her return from self-exile, Benazir went beyond all decency and decorum to appease the US and other Western powers. Her assertions that she was not opposed to the American operations in the Pakistan's tribal areas to fight "terrorism' and would allow disgraced scientist AQ Khan to be interrogated by the US showed her desperation for power. Power was all that mattered and she showed no regard to the public feelings or her country's integrity. She even talked tough about Jihadis and was willing to follow the course of General Musharraf's military response to the crisis rather than any political negotiation to rid the country of growing extremism.
Who killed Benazir?
There is no doubt that Benazir Bhutto had many enemies. After her rhetoric against Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists, her list of enemies grew phenomenally.
Despite the "deal' between Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, she was seen as main challenge to the current government. This is important to note that General Musharraf allowed Bhutto into Pakistan only after tremendous US pressure. When she arrived in Pakistan in October last, the millions of people who came to receive her gave sleepless nights to the government authorities. This ultimately paved way for the return of Nawaz Sharief another former Prime Minister who was earlier deported as soon as he landed in Pakistan.
Although the Jihadists and Al-Qaeda had allegedly vowed to kill her, the current Pakistani regime headed by General Musharraf can not be absolved and will be the greatest benefactor of her death. Another rival who may have been willing to see her dead are Chaudhry Brothers -- Chaudhry Pervez Illahi and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain of Pakistan Muslim League Q, the political partner of General Musharraf. The Chaudhry Brothers were the bitterest opponents of Benazir's homecoming and tried unsuccessfully to stop President Musharraf from doing a deal with Bhutto.
When the terrorists attacked Benazir's homecoming rally on October 18, 2007, she blamed former Punjab Chief Minister Pervez Ilahi. Chaudhry Brothers have had well documented connections with the Jihadist extremists and are well known to use violence for their political goals.
Even if President Musharraf's government may not be directly involved in her killing, it can not be absolved of inaction in protecting her. Despite being on the "hit list' of terrorists and extremists, Benazir was not provided ample security cover. The deterioration of Pakistan's intelligence and security apparatus to predict or stop suicide bombings can be gauged by the number of rising fatal bombings in and around the highest protected area of the Army Headquarters GHQ in Rawalpindi. Benazir Bhutto was also killed in Rawalpindi not far from the country's military headquarters.
The future of Pakistan is fraught with instability and the death of Benazir has further undermined the internal security of Pakistan. After her death, her party could win the majority of seats if the elections go ahead, but there is no single leader that could hold the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) together. Unfortunately, Benazir's legacy for her party is highly undemocratic and there is a chance that the PPP could split with many contenders and claimants for the throne. This could create further divisions among the Pakistan's fractured polity.
There is no doubt that the death meted out to Benazir Bhutto is tragic and testing for Pakistan. But there are some positive things that seem to be coming out of this national tragedy. In his reaction and speech to the nation, President Pervez Musharraf declared a three day "official mourning' when the national flag will fly at half mast. This is for the first time that the death of an opposition leader has been recognised officially. Similarly, Islamist Jama'at-e-Islami while condemning the terror act has called for a general strike. Other political parties from a wide spectrum of persuasions have condemned the killing and offered condolences.
The suicide attack on Benazir's convoy on 18th October 2007 that killed nearly 150 Pakistani civilians precipitated the anger of Pakistanis against the terrorism and extremism. There was a massive public recognition and reaction against the extremist ideology. Benazir's death might act as a catalyst to unite the Pakistani nation and strengthen their resolve to fight the menace that has engulfed the country thanks to its willingness to act as proxy to the alien interests in the region.
If Pervaiz Musharraf's government can offer initiatives to value the public opinion of Pakistanis in this time of multiple crisis and bring about a real national reconciliation, Pakistan could emerge from the challenges that are not only threatening the core values of its society, but also the very existence of the country and its people.
Murtaza Shibli is editor of Kashmir Affairs. He lives in London.