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Musharraf's peaceful exit brings only uncertainty

President Pervez Musharraf’s days in office were numbered from the moment his nemesis, Nawaz Sharif, came to power in the elections that brought a coalition government to Pakistan.

Sharif, who was overthrown as prime minister in 1999 by General Musharraf in a bloodless coup, had been obsessed with revenge ever since he was sent into exile in Saudi Arabia by the president. Musharraf dealt him a further blow by thwarting his return from exile at the end of last year, sending him back to Saudi Arabia, hours after he returned to Islamabad.

The question now for Pakistan is whether the departure of the president – who unlike most Pakistani politicians has never been accused of corruption – will bring more stability to the country. It will be a major test for the governing alliance which has discredited itself in recent months by in-fighting and squabbling. At least by going quietly, he has saved the country from a long-drawn out impeachment which would have plunged Pakistan into further political turmoil.

General Musharraf owes his longevity as president to his association with Washington’s “war on terror”, which secured him the West’s unqualified backing. But as he stifled political freedoms, and instability reigned, there were mounting doubts about whether he remained a bulwark against Islamic extremism or whether he was part of the problem. So his departure from office will also raise big questions for his former backers in the US and UK, which engineered the return of Benazir Bhutto as a way of marginalising the general who was deemed to be losing control of the security and political situation at the end of last year.

Washington already seems to have lost patience with the new civilian government, and the US military have been conducting strikes inside Pakistani territory against alleged al Qa’ida targets which no independent government in Islamabad will tolerate for long.

Ironically for the general, the man who once said that his uniform was like a “second skin”, had shown signs of political skills since being forced to become civilian president as part of the deal that led to the return of Ms Bhutto last October. She was assassinated on 27 December.

At the end of his memoir “In the Line of Fire”, published two years ago, President Musharraf reflected on the tasks ahead for his country. They included: stabilising the North West Frontier Province to defeat al Qa’ida, sustaining economic growth, alleviating poverty, improving education and health facilities and consolidating democracy. Sadly for Pakistan, his entire wish list remains unfulfilled