Musharraf’s gamble —William B Milam

Who is gambling on this saga ending as Casablanca did, with Rick feeling that he has done the right thing for a greater good, joining Renault who has sacrificed his security for the same greater good, walking into the sunset together to fight for a better world

Captain Renault’s celebrated exclamation, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here,” has been used a lot recently, especially in articles about the implosion of financial markets in the US and Western Europe. Writers have been “shocked” they say to find that the great, and trusted, investment wizards have been gambling with the public’s money. The gamble really was that the housing bubble, the rapid escalation of house prices in the US and Europe would continue, and the shaky financial instruments on which the bubble was based, would persist in escaping close inspection, at least until the next bonuses were paid.

They didn’t, the bubble has burst, and so maybe have the bonuses.

Captain Renault, Chief of the French Police, wasn’t really shocked, however, about the gambling in “Rick’s Café Americain”, he just needed an excuse to close the café. Almost as soon as he blows his whistle and shouts that the café is closed, the croupier comes from the back room to give him his nightly winnings. Like most of us who have implicitly had a role in today’s financial market crunch by continuing to pour our investment money into a housing market we had to know was wildly overpriced, so the Captain was complicit in the gambling that he found, publicly, so shocking.

Movie fans have instantly recognised Renault’s famous line from the movie “Casablanca”, released in November 1942, about the same time that the US Army was invading Morocco and capturing Casablanca, putting German General Rommel in a pincer between them and the British forces that by then had pushed the German Afrika Korps back into Libya. The movie did moderately good business in the year following as the battles in North Africa raged — the first blooding of American troops in the European theatre in WWII.

Yet though unmarked as a classic 65 years ago, the movie has assumed that status over the intervening years as it has become an icon of all the nostalgia about the good war — delivering the message to American audiences that there are values worth the sacrifices that war requires. Somehow the film’s attraction has been magnified to younger generations, which have taken it to their hearts as its contemporaries never did. None of its stars or makers would have predicted in 1942 that, 65 years later, it would consistently be rated by fans and many critics near the top of the 100 best movies ever made.

One interesting fact about the movie is that it was, more or less, made on the run. Taken from an unproduced play, it had at least four screen writers that worked on it in addition to the two playwrights. To say the least, this was a team effort. The writers, not always working together, wrote new dialogue every night for the next day’s filming. Yet, haphazardly written or not, I know of no other movie dialogue that is recorded almost in its entirety on the internet, and which movie crowds at revivals shout out many of the lines as they are spoken. Most of us real movie fans can push mute button on the remote and speak most of the dialogue from memory.

Despite its ad hoc production, the film became a classic. This may have been why the news from Pakistan reminded me of it. Or it may have been because once the film came into my mind, I was reminded of Captain Renault’s phoney surprise that gambling was going on in Rick’s back room, and wondered if anybody was really surprised at the turn of events in Islamabad. There has been a lot of gambling going on in the political back rooms of Islamabad since February 18.

The president was, perhaps, gambling that he could count on the army as his leverage in the political tug-of-war that was waged over how to get rid of him. I have pointed out before that the army has other concerns than just personal loyalty to “one of its own”. Similar history in other countries never seems to register in Pakistan, but the lesson of what happened to President/ex-General Ershad in Bangladesh should have been instructive.

When the Bangladesh army perceived that its corporate interests were threatened and its image so badly tarnished by the excesses and mistakes of one of its own, it walked away and left him to his fate (jail). By the time the situation had come to that point, Ershad had no leverage left to insist on immunity.

In the last 18 months, the situation in Pakistan has paralleled in many ways Ershad’s last 18 months in power. Though more unpopular by far than President Musharraf in his early years in power, Ershad became increasingly unpopular in the final years, as Musharraf increasingly has since 9/11. The army’s popularity traced Ershad’s, to the point that troops and officers refused to wear their uniforms when leaving the cantonments because they were suffering public insults and even being spat on. When the leaders of the two major parties of Bangladesh, after 8 years of enmity that enabled Ershad to keep them divided, finally agreed on a one-point programme — get rid of Ershad — his only defence to the pressure the parties jointly mounted was an emergency which the army refused to support.

Musharraf’s final defence against the lawyers and the judges he sacked was the November 3 emergency (in essence a coup against his own government) which only got him and the army in more hot water. The question is, did President Musharraf still have enough leverage (i.e. army support) left to protect him from political reprisals in retirement or, like Ershad, did he gamble too long on that?

The news that he has announced retirement is just coming in as this is written, and it does not make clear if he is leaving office with any kind of immunity or other legal protection from his sworn political enemies. Whether he deserves to be left alone in retirement, or to be brought up on charges similar to those in the charge-sheet we have read about the past few days in the press, is a question better left to a time when the rhetoric and the passions have cooled down. He made many mistakes; that is certain.

One of them is the long, drawn-out drama — really part of each of our mornings since February 18 — that is just coming to denouement. Though retirement itself, rather that restoring the judges, only became the central issue in the past two weeks, it has been the bottom line issue since he was rejected in that election.

The president should have come to this point himself several months ago. Had he done so, I suspect there would be no question of his leverage. The army leaders, many of whom were his willing colleagues until late last year when he finally resigned as COAS, would have not wanted to leave him (and by implication, them) without protection from those political actors who might seek revenge for grievances they hold against either the direct military government of 1999 to 2002 or the military/civilian hybrid one after October 2002.

It seems to me his gamble got riskier as the impasse between the parties on restoring the judges went on — almost causing the government alliance to crumble.

For the army leaders in either case, the question is what happens to the political alliance that has unseated President Musharraf after he is gone to his farm with immunity and the protection he will need or somewhere without immunity. Who is gambling on this saga ending as Casablanca did, with Rick feeling that he has done the right thing for a greater good, joining Renault who has sacrificed his security for the same greater good, walking into the sunset together to fight for a better world.

What are the odds on the PMLN saying to the PPP, as Rick says to Renault as they walk out of view, “…this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship?” Is it likely that two parties which seem to agree on nothing else, which couldn’t even find a compromise formula to restore some, if not all, of the judges and begin to restore the judiciary’s independence set out in the constitution of 1973 (eroded by both parties when they were in power since then) will come to anything like the same conclusion?

The President’s departure was necessary for political progress, but I doubt it will be sufficient for Pakistan to overcome its existential crisis.

William B Milam is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington and a former US Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

Source: Daily Times, 20/8/2008

 

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