Streets awash with rumour in a nation where leaders die in office

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In Pakistan, rumours and conspiracy theories have a rare potency. And yesterday they seemed irresistible.

Less than 48 hours after General Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule, the capital was ablaze with tales that he himself had been ousted through a coup and placed under house arrest. General Ashfaq Kiyani, the 55-year-old former spymaster who was poised to assume the top role in the expected event of General Musharraf becoming a civilian president, was said to have taken over.

At a bank in Melody Market, in the centre of Islamabad, a teller announced |the rumour to waiting customers. Journalists harried officials and diplomats for details. By lunchtime, the rumours had assumed such proportions that General Musharraf felt it necessary to issue a denial. “It is a joke of the highest order,” he told Reuters after having spent the morning explaining his actions to 80 ambassadors at the presidential palace.

If such rumours appear extravagant, bear in mind Pakistan’s history. The country’s military rulers have all fallen against their will, and no civilian government has completed a full term in office. Since Pakistan’s birth in 1947, perishing violently or being forced abruptly from office has been the rule rather than the exception. One of its rulers was hanged; another was shot dead while addressing a rally; another died in a mysterious plane crash while the rest were sacked, exiled or removed in coups d’etat.

Thirty years ago, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the country’s longest serving dictator, toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the country’s first democratically elected leader. Mr Bhutto had appointed General Zia army chief over the heads of five other generals, firm in the belief that he would not be inviting trouble.

General Musharraf vaulted to power in October 1999 after an abortive attempt by the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to replace him. Mr Sharif, who was swiftly deported after an attempt to return from exile in September, had also appointed General Musharraf over other senior generals.

Civilians have also succeeded in their ambition to rise from loyalist to leader. Mr Bhutto once served as a minister under General Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator. After founding the Pakistan People’s Party, he put himself at the head of a civilian revolt that precipitated General Ayub’s downfall.

And in late 1996, just weeks after her brother was murdered, Benazir Bhutto was forced out of office through a constitutional coup by Farooq Leghari, her own hand-picked president.

In addition to the ban on independent television channels and the news vacuum this created, another reason that the rumour about General Musharraf had such currency was that General Kiyani – the man whom the rumour-mongers said had taken over – is so well connected.

Before the legality of his presidential election for a further five years was thrown into question by the Supreme Court, General Musharraf had promised to shed his uniform by 15 November. It was understood that General Kiyani, who had been elevated to the |position of vice-chief in a series of promotions for Musharraf loyalists in October, would then take over.

General Kiyani had headed the powerful ISI intelligence agency for the past three years. He is favourably regarded by Washington and is also on nodding terms with Ms Bhutto. General Kiyani served as her deputy military secretary and was recently involved in power-sharing negotiations between Ms Bhutto and General Musharraf.

General Musharraf’s resort to emergency rule has so far proved widely unpopular, with even members of the ruling party expressing disapproval. What effect it has had on the army as a whole is unclear. It is highly unlikely he would have made the move without the unanimous approval of the corps commanders. But with reports of army morale in decline as clashes with Islamist militants in the North-West Frontier Province and the lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border grow ever bloodier, there had been signs that junior officers would be less keen.

All of these were signs seized on by those consumed by the rumours of a coup against General Musharraf. Rumours of palace intrigue may be inescapable, for Pakistan is the place where so many rumours have proved to be true.

Poisoned chalice

* Liaquat Ali Khan

Regarded as the right-hand man of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, he became Prime Minister after independence in 1947, and was responsible for the Objective Resolution, the framework for a future constitution. Shot dead in October 1951 while addressing a public meeting in Rawalpindi. The crowd lynched his killer.

* Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Won acclaim for making Pakistan the first Muslim state with a nuclear capability, but also faced |corruption allegations. Appointed General Zia-ul-Haq as army commander in an attempt to forestall a coup. However, General Zia arrested Bhutto in 1977, put him on trial for “conspiracy to murder” his political opponents and hanged him in April 1979.

* Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq

Made himself President in September 1978. Became an ally of the West during the Russians’ war in Afghanistan, when Pakistan’s intelligence service first made contact with Osama bin Laden. “Islamised” Pakistani institutions, including the military. Killed in an air crash in 1988 thought to have been organised by his rivals.