Pakistan driven to the brink by drug barons and fanatics

As Benazir Bhutto loses her grip, even Imran Khan, cricketing hero and political novice, is being touted as the country's possible saviour Citizens compare her 25 trips abroad with the four she has made to her home town

As Pakistan threatens to implode in a frenzy of sectarian and ethnic slaughter, opponents accuse Benazir Bhutto of fretting too much over her prime ministerial image, the colour of her nail polish and the cut of her shimmering salwar kameez.

In Karachi on Saturday, 22 prayer-goers in two separate mosques were massacred by fanatics from a rival Muslim sect. Citizens of Karachi angrily compare Ms Bhutto's 25 trips abroad with the four she has made to her troubled home town. Discontent with Ms Bhutto and the conservative opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, is so high that Imran Khan, the cricketer turned orthodox Muslim, is being touted as the country's only possible saviour. Never mind that he is a novice in the blood-sport of Pakistani politics.

If Pakistan seems a mess, it is. Under Ms Bhutto's pallid leadership the country's provinces have fallen under the sway of suspected heroin smugglers, feudal chieftains, land-grabbers and religious fundamentalists. Sindh province is spiralling into anarchy, with rival ethnic and sectarian gangs shooting more than 150 people in the past month.

Along the Afghan border, thousands of tribespeople went on a rampage recently because the government had the audacity to seize several tons of hashish and opium which belonged to them. Sectarian persecution is rising: no sooner were two Christians, one a 14-year old boy, spared a hanging for blasphemy on Thursday than another Christian was arrested on similar charges.

According to airline officials, the two freed Christians have flown to Germany to avoid certain death at the hands of Muslim extremists. Salamat Masih, 14, and Rehmat Masih, 40, whose death sentences were overturned by the Lahore High Court, left Islamabad in secrecy on a Pakistan International Airlines flight to Frankfurt. A spokesman at the German embassy in Islamabad said they had applied for visitors' visas, which had been granted. He could not say whether Germany was their final destination.

The list of Pakistan's woes lengthens daily. Unemployment among youths runs close to 40 per cent; they are angry and make easy converts to religious extremism. Inflation has hit 13 per cent. The state health and education system is nearing collapse, yet Ms Bhutto sees fit to spend £1.5bn on French submarines to keep the military, a major player in Pakistani politics, on her side.

An agricultural tax which would have raised money for the treasury and broken up the feudal lords' vast estates has not been enforced because Ms Bhutto needs the many votes these squires can deliver with a crack of the whip.

Despite the appearance that Pakistan is sliding deeper into chaos, Ms Bhutto is likely to last out the remaining three years of her job. During her last term as prime minister, Ms Bhutto was forced out in 1990 by the President, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who had broad powers. This time, however, the President, Farouq Leghari, is an ally drawn from the top echelon of Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. So far, he is sticking firmly to her side.

Pakistan's woeful economy has made the generals unwilling to meddle in politics. With the Soviet Union shattered, Pakistan's status as a frontline defender against Communism is finished. Washington is no longer ready to tolerate military coups in Pakistan in the pursuit of its Cold War objectives. Foreign aid from Europe and the United States would almost certainly dry up if the army toppled Ms Bhutto.

Nor does the Prime Minister's biggest rival, Mr Sharif, pose any immediate threat. A campaign of strikes and public protest, begun in autumn by Mr Sharif against alleged state corruption, petered out. Mr Sharif's conservative Pakistan Muslim League is now riddled with defectors and mischief-makers. Ms Bhutto, on seeing her rival falter, pounced. "The days of being a sloppy liberal are gone," Ms Bhutto vowed.

Thousands of pro-Sharif activists were jailed after the autumn protests, and Ms Bhutto trained her sights on the Sharif family's industrial empire. Several of the Sharif family were arrested, including the former prime minister's father, Mian Sharif, though he was later released. "If the [Bhutto] government has succeeded on one count, it is in its policy of destroying our family business," Mr Sharif complained recently.

Ms Bhutto's newest challenge comes from Mr Khan, who led Pakistan to World Cup victory in 1992. Lately the cricket star has shed his image as carefree Western socialite and now he attacks the British colonialists for leaving Pakistanis with "an inferiority complex". He recently advised: "What I say to the youth is learn English by a means of education but don't try to become an Englishman." Mr Khan has allied himself with a former Pakistan spymaster, General Hamid Ghul, known for his militant pan-Islamic theories. The cricket hero and ex-spy chief are forming a pressure group to fight state corruption and promote social reform, though many Pakistanis suspect that the general is grooming the charismatic cricketer for the role of prime minister.

Aides to Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif are worried enough about the swell of popular support for the sports hero, especially among the middle class, to have launched a vicious and - so far - ineffective slander campaign against Mr Khan. The main criticism seems to be that the handsome cricketer enjoyed too many Western girlfriends.

Until recently Ms Bhutto seems to have been hostage to the small but increasingly virulent religious fundamentalist fringe parties. Although the Islamic parties received a small share of the vote in the last elections, their militancy overshadows their actual support. As a first step, Ms Bhutto last month banned all foreign funding for Pakistan's thousands of religious schools and authorities are tracking down the ones preaching sectarian hatred.

It may be too little too late, but after the two Christians had their blasphemy convictions overturned, Ms Bhutto ordered police to arrest more than 100 suspected religious extremists throughout Punjab and in Karachi. Most are militants belonging to hard-line Sunni and Shia Muslim communities who have allegedly been responsible for the latest spate of communal murders. But having allowed religious clashes to drag on for so many months, Ms Bhutto may find herself powerless to halt the communal and ethnic feuds. The blood-letting has gone on for too long.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary teaching roles in Ipswich

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education re...

Science teachers needed in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits