'Since you were so kind as to greet us in London at Downing Street last month, the President would like to return the favour," announces Major-General Rashid Qureshi, President Pervez Musharraf's PR man over the phone. Only in Pakistan could the government's head of spin be a retired major-general. He is referring to my last encounter with the President on 28 January – when, along with a 2,000-strong, placard-waving, slogan-jeering mob, I protested on the main road outside 10 Downing Street while Musharraf discussed democracy with Gordon Brown over lunch inside. On the way in he waved at us. Clearly he's a man who is not afraid of confrontation. Much to the justifiable fury of every journalist in Islamabad, he has now granted me an exclusive half-hour interview despite or perhaps because of the fact that I have recently described him as one of the most repressive dictators Pakistan has ever known.
On the way to the Camp Office in Rawalpindi, I cross the bridge and pass the petrol station, which mark the spots of two recent attempts on the life of the now deeply unpopular President. I have a horrible fear that, bamboozled under the spotlight of his renowned charm, I may start to simper. My ex-husband, one of the President's most vocal critics, has already told me he thinks this is all a terrible idea. "It will be misinterpreted in Pakistan. Besides, you'll be too soft on him," he said.
The Camp Office turns out to be an old colonial building which used to be the HQ of the northern command under the British. With its delicately carved, wooden, double-height ceilings, sweeping central staircase, marble floors and ornate carpets, it's not hard to see why the President chose this as his private office in Rawalpindi. His residence is just up the driveway.
A dozen straight-backed men in uniform – red waistcoats over starched cream kurtas – are ready to greet me outside. The President, I'm informed, is not quite ready so I am led to the staff office for a "tea break" with a group of army officers who make up his presidential office team. Musharraf's personal assistant, a dashing, grey-haired, light-eyed naval commander, and a jovial head of security, also a young army officer, joke that the delay is just an excuse for them to do a little preparatory brainwashing.
A bright yellow cake, some intimidating-looking chicken vol-au-vents and chai (milky tea) are wheeled in. Major Qureshi, Musharraf's Alastair Campbell, tucks in happily and regales me for an hour with stories about Soviet-era Pakistani military triumphs and the magnanimity and general excellence of his boss. "Any country in the world would like to have this person as their leader," he tells us proudly.
After an hour I am shown into a huge sitting room, divided in the middle by a latticed wood screen to segregate ladies from men at more formal functions. Musharraf enters. The last time I saw him in the flesh he was in his full army regalia. Somehow his civilian clothes have diminished him. I find his brown business suit and dainty penny loafers which have replaced the sturdy army boots almost unsettling. He seems to have lost both height and swagger. And his body language seems just a touch defensive. The immaculate hair also troubles me. Boot-polish black, artfully grey at the temples, it shows signs of some work.
I start the interview on an unfortunate note. "Given that the last time you saw me, I was protesting outside No 10, I'm grateful that you've granted me this opportunity. It's quite a coup." Bad word. There's a moment's silence while it hangs in the air.
The President, it turns out, is very disappointed in me. For a moment I think I have been called to his office for a sound ticking-off. "I was disappointed. Very disappointed," he says. "I was disappointed because you ought to be knowing our environment ... what Pakistanis are like ... what is our society. Well, it's acceptable if a person has never visited Pakistan and doesn't know Pakistan to have ideal views [presumably, he means idealistic views]. But I thought you ought to be knowing what Pakistan is ... This is not an ideal society."
He goes on. Mindful that I have only limited time and that there's a man in uniform sitting at the back of the room already checking his watch before I've even asked my first question, I politely interrupt. I remind him that when I first met him he too was an idealist. There is strange symmetry to this visit. I last met Musharraf three days before the last elections in 2002. And now here I am, five and a half years on, three days before elections on Monday. Back then, especially when Musharraf first came to power, I was a somewhat naive supporter. Selfishly, I was relieved when he succeeded came to power by military coup on 12 October 1999. Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister he deposed, had tried to have me jailed on trumped-up, politically motivated charges of smuggling – a non-bailable offence in Pakistan.
I suspect it was to intimidate my ex-husband, who at that time was a noisy critic. I had scarpered to London before I could be arrested and was able to return with my two children to Pakistan six months later only after Musharraf seized power and the charges against me were duly dropped. More importantly, though, Musharraf took over with the express aim of cleaning up Pakistani politics. He despised the corrupt politicians as much as anyone. He immediately set up his own national accountability bureau and declared that his mission was to hold the corrupt accountable.
I'm also disappointed, I tell him. The corrupt got off scot-free. And now it looks as though he will shortly be doing business with the very same politicians he wanted to get rid of.
Disarmingly he agrees – something he does a lot of. And I sense it's genuine rather than appeasement. He argues that he had no other choice but to deal with the existing leaders of the main parties. This is a little disingenuous. The national reconciliation ordinance which he passed in October 2007 effectively guaranteed lifelong immunity from prosecution to corrupt politicians such as Benazir Bhutto, her husband Zardari and others, and enabled her to return to Pakistan to contest elections. He asks if he is being recorded. I say yes. He hesitates, then answers tellingly, "Yes, I agree with you [that charges should not have been dropped]. But then Benazir has good contacts abroad in your country, who thought she was the future of the country."
I press him further. Surely even in spite of pressure from outside, given his feelings about the effects of corruption on Pakistani politics, those charges should never have been dropped. There should have been a proper judicial process.
I put this to him. "No," he replies, "because they would have all joined and then I would have been out." At this point he looks a bit wild eyed. He quickly adds that, of course, being in power has never been his ultimate goal. How much easier it would be, he adds wistfully and a touch unconvincingly, if he'd just resigned to play golf.
A uniformed bearer offers fruit juice and warm roasted almonds. I down my juice in one gulp, then worry it may have looked unseemly. In the past four years I'd forgotten that Pakistani women are expected to overplay their femininity. I'm lounging like a bloke and downing pomegranate juice like lager.
Often he fails to see the irony in his own words, which can be unintentionally comic. Several times I have to suppress a smile. When confronted with the suggestion, for example, that he will have to work with a coalition government consisting of some the most infamous crooks in Pakistan, he responds with great sincerity, "I'm not running a martial law here. What can I do?" He adds, "My role as a president is simply the checks and balances – the seatbelts ... a sort of father figure to the Prime Minister but I won't have to see him for weeks."
The image he paints of himself as a benign, legitimised dictator is at odds with the recent Human Rights Watch report that accuses his regime of hundreds of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, harassment, intimidation and extrajudicial killings
Later when I point out that his old opponent Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), has vowed that if elected he will reinstate the judges who were unconstitutionally deposed by Musharraf, he retorts incredulously, "It is not a dictatorship here! How can you reinstate judges if you become prime minister? How?" This rhetorical question comes from a man who on 3 November dismissed 60 per cent of the superior court judges, including three chief justices, in anticipation of their ruling against his re-election as President while still head of the army. Many remain under house arrest.
He seems to be someone who feels painfully let down and misunderstood. This is particularly the case when he talks about my ex-husband, Imran. "You know, I liked him. But he is the most unrealistic person. I wanted to support him." He mentions him a few times in the interview. And the strange thing is, I detect hurt. President Musharraf, dictator, despot, guardian of the West against al-Qa'ida – and all I can see are the wounded eyes of a betrayed lover when he talks about my ex. Under his regime, in the past year, Imran has been held under house arrest, jailed, then released and has had his movements restricted. Hell hath no fury like a general scorned.
I change the subject. Last time I visited him here in Rawalpindi he gave me a spookily accurate prediction of the imminent election results, which suggested information more than insight. Who will win this election? His answer is definitive. The PML-Q (the party otherwise known as the King's Party, assembled by President Musharraf himself six years ago to legitimise his "managed" democracy) allied with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement will "certainly have the majority. Whether they'll be able to form a government is a question mark." This contradicts all the recent opinion polls, which have shown that the popularity of his favoured party is right down, at just 12 per cent. I point out this out to him.
He dismisses the polls. They are biased, conducted by local organisations that are against him. "They have been abusing me right from the beginning and you will never get good results from them."
He seems increasingly paranoid. "The media have let me down ... The NGOs are against me. I don't know why. I think I have been the strongest proponent of human rights ..." In fact, the only people who are not against him, according to him, are the Western leaders who he says are "absolutely supportive" and "express total solidarity".
I don't doubt Musharraf's bravery or even his initial good intentions. Nor is anyone underestimating the scale of the problems that Pakistan faces today.
If anything, the impression is one of amateurishness and of a naivety that would be endearing if it had not been so profoundly damaging to his country. And in recent months he has become belligerent with local journalists. In London last month a respected Pakistani editor was castigated for asking about Rashid Rauf, the escaped terror suspect, and the fact that many believe he was deliberately freed by the police. Such impertinent journalists "should be roughed up", he was alleged to have told the assembled crowds in response.
When I ask about the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who is still under house arrest, he denounces him as "the scum of the earth – a third-rate man – a corrupt man". And the lawyers' movement? The lawyers have vowed to continue protesting on the streets and boycotting the courts until the deposed judges are reinstated and the constitution is restored to its pre-3 November status. "With hindsight," he replies solemnly, "it was my personal error that I allowed them to go and express their views in the street... We should have controlled them in the beginning before it got out of control." To those more used to seeing beards and white robes at protests, the images of suited, bookish-looking lawyers fighting off police batons were a memorable spectacle.
Musharraf mentions democracy a great deal. He seems sincere. He is genuinely likeable. But it seems he just can't help himself. You can take the general out of the army but not the army out of the general. It reminds me of the Aesop fable about the scorpion and the frog. The frog gives the scorpion, who cannot swim, a lift across the river. Halfway across, the scorpion stings him. "Why did you do that?" asks the frog. "Now we'll both die." "I'm a scorpion; it's my nature."
As I leave he presents me with a clock inscribed "from the President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan". It seems an inauspicious gift from a man whose time may be up. He shakes my hand. "It will be the saddest day for Pakistan if Benazir's crooked widower is in power by Monday," I say. As the President walks away, he looks back. "At least we part on agreement."
Special report in tomorrow's 'Independent'