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She came, she saw, he conquered

General Musharraf and I met in Abu Dhabi in January 2007. A helicopter was sent to pick me up, and I landed in the green gardens of the palace where the meeting was to take place. I thought of the time that I had earlier visited His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan, who had already treated my father like a brother and me like a daughter. I thought of my father, who used to say, “The wheel of fortune turns, and in its revolution is a better future.” General Musharraf, the man who had sworn to finish me politically, was now going to meet me to discuss the future of Pakistan.

Much to my surprise, the meeting was both long and cordial. We had a one-to-one meeting for several hours. I brought up all the critical political issues, the contentious issues, and General Musharraf’s response to all of them was positive. I said that it was absolutely necessary for him to shed his uniform as army chief of staff. I made it clear that there had to be free, fair and transparent elections that were internationally monitored and that a new, impartial Election Commission must be formed to supervise the elections. He readily acknowledged that the charges that had been brought against me and my family had been politically motivated and designed to destroy my reputation, and I said he must indicate that not only privately but also publicly.

To my utter surprise he not only agreed in January 2007 to retire as army chief to pave the way for an understanding with the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) and for national reconciliation but also took me into confidence that it would be done in October 2007, before the presidential election. As the PPP did not recognise the legality of the elections by the existing Parliament, General Musharraf, who had a majority, did not ask for our votes. We decided to leave the legality issue to the courts. It was decided that I would be in Pakistan by December 31, 2007, New Year’s Eve, and General Musharraf said he would join me at Bilawal House for New Year’s Eve if I invited him.

Used to fractious, long winded arguments with opposition parties, I could not believe everything had gone so well. In fact, it had gone too well. I was worried: while all the major demands, including retiring as army chief and lifting the ban on twice-elected prime ministers had been agreed to, what were we to do if at the end the general and his team walked away with a rigged election, leaving us high and dry?

General Musharraf and I met again in Abu Dhabi in July 2007. He asked to see me urgently. We were meeting after two important events — first, the removal and reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar, and second, the Red Mosque rebellion, which had left more than a hundred people dead. General Musharraf wanted the PPP’s support in reducing the age of retirement for members of the superior judiciary. I could not agree to this, believing it would start a new round of confrontation with the judiciary. Second, he said that he could not finish the cases as he had promised. I told him it was okay if he could not finish the cases. Perhaps he could instead lift the ban on a twice-elected prime minister to show movement? He agreed. Again nothing happened.

In August I called PPP leaders to New York. There we discussed giving General Musharraf a “nonpaper” of what we expected. The “nonpaper” said that unless there was movement, by the end of August both sides would be free to go their own ways. General Musharraf and I had a long conversation over the phone that night. He said he would send a team to see me at the end of August.

The August team met me in London at my flat in Queen’s Gate. They discussed a whole new constitutional package. We increased the political price for the new package. They said they would come back in two days. They didn’t. As the deadline approached for calling off talks, I got a call that the deadline would be extended. It was, but there was silence from the Musharraf camp.

The PPP and I met in London in September, and I announced that the date of my return to Pakistan would be given on September 14, 2007, from all the capitals and regions of Pakistan. I wanted the date announced from my homeland. The talks with Musharraf remained erratic.

General Musharraf had agreed to allow free and fair elections under international monitoring. He agreed to an independent Election Commission. He agreed to create a neutral caretaker government. He agreed to allow the newly elected Parliament to revise the rather absurd prohibition against Pakistanis being elected more than twice as prime minister. If Musharraf had fulfilled his promises, Pakistan could have had an orderly democratic transition, closing the chapter on military rule once and for all.

But as the poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Between the idea and the reality falls a shadow.” Was General Musharraf merely stalling for time to try to consolidate power? I can’t say. But on November 3, 2007, he declared martial law by suspending the Constitution. It put him on a collision course with both the people of the country and the PPP.

The international community was also calling for the lifting of the emergency, setting a date for elections, General Musharraf’s keeping his commitment to retire as army head, releasing of political prisoners, and lifting of the gag on the media. On November 16, 2007, U.S. Deputy secretary of state John Negroponte visited Pakistan. We spoke on the phone. He wondered whether it was possible to put the derailed democratic transition back on track through dialogue.

To build pressure for the holding of fair elections, I met with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif on December 4, 2007, at my house in Islamabad. I tried to convince him and his allies to participate in the elections, believing it would be more difficult to rig against all of us.

At times I worry whether we as a nation can survive the threat of disintegration. Since the overthrow of my government, the militants have made many inroads into the very structure of governance of Pakistan through their supporters and sympathisers. Pakistan is a tinderbox that could catch fire quickly. It is my home, the home of my children, the home of all children of Pakistan for whom such enormous sacrifices have been made.

Sixty years after Pakistan’s creation, the case study of our nation’s record with democracy is a sad chronicle of steps forward and huge steps backward. But this too will change. In the words of the great Pakistani poet-philosopher Iqbal, “Tyranny cannot long endure.”

© 2008 by Benazir Bhutto

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