One of George Bush’s favourite dictators fell on his sword this week. Pervez Musharraf, the former general and president of Pakistan, resigned rather than face impeachment by the country’s parliament.
Musharraf seized power in a coup in 1999 and has always received warm support from US and British governments.
But the West embraced him most tightly after 9/11 as he decided to throw Pakistan’s lot in with the US-led assault on neighbouring Afghanistan.
Musharraf’s departure marks a blow to Western policy in a country that is a front line in the “war on terror”.
Bush saluted the outgoing dictator as a “committed partner in the war against terrorism”. Britain’s foreign secretary David Miliband paid tribute to his “commitment to tackling terrorism”.
But Musharraf’s rule has brought nothing but devastation to Pakistan’s poor majority. He has presided over a series of disastrous wars against Islamic militants along the border with Afghanistan.
These wars – conducted at Bush’s request – spread further into the country, forcing thousands to flee for their lives.
But it was not just Musharraf’s unstinting support for the “war on terror” that made him deeply unpopular.
Since taking power the general has implemented a series of neoliberal economic policies. Steel and electricity industries were handed to multinational corporations at knockdown prices.
So much money sloshed around the rich that they hardly knew what to do with their wealth. But for the poor, life grew steadily worse. Inflation rates started to soar while wages stagnated.
As discontent with the regime grew Musharraf sought to neutralise opposition from within sections of the judiciary. In November 2007 he declared a state of emergency and sacked Pakistan’s chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary.
An outpouring of anger brought thousands of lawyers, journalists, civil society activists and students onto the streets to demand the restoration of the rule of law.
Despite failing to bring down the dictator, the civil society movement proved to the world that Musharraf had no real support in the country.
Musharraf’s political party was trashed in elections in February this year. A new civilian government came into office demanding his removal from the presidency.
But the new administration now faces challenges. Millions expect that the state will end its support for the US “war on terror” and replace it with a policy that holds back from military engagement.
There are already signs that the US is not happy with this new arrangement. It has repeatedly lobbied the new government for the right to send US troops into Pakistan’s border regions.
The price of denying US demands will be the loss of billions of dollars in aid. This comes at a time when Pakistan’s economy is rapidly heading towards crisis.
The hope must be that the feeling of jubilation that swept Pakistan as the dictator gave his last gasp can breathe new life into the movements of workers and the poor.
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