Coup fever grips Pakistan

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The Independent Online
PAKISTAN LURCHED a step nearer the abyss yesterday when 12 people, according to one report, were killed in Karachi during a general strike in the city. It was called by one of the numerous feuding political terror gangs, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

Six hundred people have died in the city's violence this year. As the capital, Islamabad, digested the implications of the warning to the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, by the army chief, General Jehangir Karamat, the chattering classes pondered whether another bout of military rule could soon be in store. Last night, he was reported to have resigned. The gossips also wondered if it could be any worse than what they have at the moment. The rumour mill and foreign newspapers have been predicting an "imminent" coup for weeks.

Unlike some of his predecessors, notably Zia ul-Haq, the late military dictator, Gen Karamat has conducted himself with propriety and restraint. Last year, when Mr Sharif was in a power struggle with the then chief justice, Sajjad Ali Shah, the latter called for Gen Karamat to deploy troops at the Supreme Court. His response was to forward the letter to the minister of defence.

Civilian governments have repeatedly failed Pakistan, but their military usurpers have done little better. Gen Karamat has shown himself in no hurry to become the next anti-hero. That is why his speech on Monday had such a galvanising effect. Coming days after Mr Sharif said he did not intend to sue The Observer over a report alleging he had amassed a fortune abroad, Gen Karamat proposed the creation of a National Security Council at the apex to "institutionalise decision-making", a roundabout way of proposing power-sharing.

As The Dawn newspaper said, a national security council is a "hoary chestnut", having been tried and proposed before. But the general gave reasons why something must be done. "Unlike countries with economic potential", Pakistan could not afford the effects of "polarisation, vendettas and insecurity-driven expedient policies". "Vendetta" refers to Mr Sharif's apparent preoccupation with consummating the downfall of the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who is charged with crimes of greed and plunder similar to those of which Mr Sharif is accused.

By "expedient policies" the general may mean the Islamisation Bill, by which Mr Sharif intends to cement his grip on power by crippling the judiciary, having already tamed the opposition and the presidency.

Gen Karamat has only two more months in his post, and is said to be locked in dispute with Mr Sharif over who should succeed him. He spoke out as the government faced a frightening array of difficulties. The economy is on the verge of collapse following the imposition of sanctions after June's nuclear tests. The threat of war between Iran and the Pakistan- sponsored Taliban in Afghanistan has driven Iran-Pakistan relations to a dangerous low. Sectarian violence that has run out of control in Karachi over the past five months seems to be beyond the ability of any government agency to check. The regions are in revolt against the hegemony of the Punjab, the largest state, and the one from which Mr Sharif hails.

It is extraordinary that Mr Sharif, who came back into office less than two years ago with an awesome parliamentary majority, has managed to convert a mammoth advantage into a mountain-range of crises.

Gen Karamat himself admits to "resisting pressures". In his carefully judged speech he made it clear both how gravely Pakistan is in need of mature leadership and how reluctant he himself is to be seen to be offering it.