Gazette: The evil genie with a Groucho moustache

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WHEN A tyrant falls, the world's shadows lighten, and only hypocrites grieve; and General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq was one of the cruellest of modern tyrants - whatever his "great friend" George Bush and his staunch supporter Margaret Thatcher would have us think. Eleven years ago, he burst out of his bottle like an Arabian Nights goblin, and although he seemed, at first, a puny sort of demon, he instantly commenced to grow, until he was gigantic enough to be able to grab the whole of Pakistan by the throat. Now, after an eternity of repression, a sad, strangulated nation may, for a few moments, breath a little more freely.

Deferential, unassuming, humbly religious Zia, the plain soldier's plain soldier; it was easy for a man as brilliant, patrician and autocratic as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto - no stranger to despotism himself - to see such a fellow as a useful, controllable fool, a corked and bottled genie with a comical Groucho moustache. Zia became Bhutto's chief of staff in 1976 largely because Bhutto felt he had him safely in his pocket. But Pakistani generals have a way of leaping out of such pockets and sealing up their former masters instead. The protege deposed the patron in July 1977, and became his executioner two years later, initiating a blood feud with the Bhutto dynasty which could probably only have ended with his death. One of the more optimistic aspects of the new situation is that Pakistan's remaining generals have no reason to fear the Bhuttos' revenge if power should return to Pakistan's long-denied democratic forces.

Pakistan under Zia has become a nightmarish land, in which battlefield armaments meant for the Afghan rebels are traded more or less openly on the country's black markets; in which the citizens of Karachi speak, with a shrug, of the daily collusion between the police force and large-scale gangs of thieves; in which private armies of heavily armed men defend and service one of the world's biggest narcotics industries; in which "elections" take place without the participation of any political parties.

That such a situation should be described, around the world, as "stability" would be funny if it were not vile; that it has been concealed beneath a cloak of religious faith is more terrible still. It needs to be said repeatedly in the West that Islam is no more monolithically cruel, no more an "evil empire" than Christianity, capitalism or Communism. The medieval, misogynistic, stultifying ideology which Zia imposed on Pakistan in his "Islamisation" programme was the ugliest possible face of the faith, and one by which most Pakistani Muslims were, I believe, disturbed and frightened.

To be a believer is not by any means to be a zealot. Islam in the Indo- Pakistani subcontinent has developed historically along moderate lines, with a strong strain of pluralistic Sufi philosophy; Zia was this Islam's enemy. Now that he is gone, much of the Islamisation programme may quickly follow him. Pakistan neither wants nor needs a legal system which makes the evidence of women worth less than that of men; nor one which bans the showing on Pakistani television of the women's events from the Seoul Olympic Games.

What happens now? Seasoned observers of the Pakistani scene will not be throwing too many hats in the air. It seems unlikely that the army will be prepared to relinquish real power while the Afghan situation remains volatile. But this time there is another option; a long shot, but worth a mention.

If the US administration could bring itself to see that General Zia's brand of "stability" has left behind a legacy of profound instability; and, if America was then to decide to back the democratic forces in Pakistan rather than the military ones, then a new stability centred on that quaint old idea, representative government, might become possible. I am talking, of course, about Benazir Bhutto and the coalition of political parties she leads, and which she must now work hard to preserve. This ought to be Benazir's moment; it remains to be seen whether the obduracy of the Pakistan army, the fissiparous nature of the coalition (now that its great uniting foes has gone), and the contortions of geopolitics conspire to deprive her of it.

From `The Independent', Friday 19 August 1988