Pervez Musharraf's fantasy world crumbles as he sits in jail

Pakistan's former president played at being a democrat, but his self-delusion knew no bounds

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The bizarre spectacle of the man who once bestrode Pakistan fleeing from an Islamabad courtroom on Friday before being arrested and locked up was of a piece with the rest of Pervez Musharraf's career. Gifted, courageous and strong willed, he has made a habit of riding his luck too hard and too far, until fortune collapsed into disaster. Yesterday, a judge ordered him held in custody for two more weeks, until the next hearing in a case related to his 2007 decision to sack several judges.

In Pakistan's incessant game of chicken between politicians and the army, he was promoted to chief of army staff because it was thought he was the one general who would never stage a coup. He was seen as a man with no political connections or axe to grind, merely a tough former commando, a hands-on soldier. Another reason was because he was a mohajir, a Muslim born in what is now India under the Raj and who emigrated to the Muslim-majority areas with his family in the chaos of Partition, a stigmatised and discriminated-against minority in the new Islamic republic.

But the man who gave him the top job, the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, fatally misread and underestimated him. General Musharraf was a turbulent and mischief-making head of the army, who refused to go along with his civilian boss's attempts to mend fences with India. While Sharif was grinning his way through border diplomacy with his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Musharraf was plotting war, and bounced Pakistan into a wildly ambitious attempt to wrest possession of Indian Kashmir.

The Kargil mountain war in the summer of 1999, the first Indo-Pakistan conflict for 28 years, saw the two bitterly antagonistic nuclear-armed neighbours come to the brink of all-out war. It ended when the US forced Sharif into a humiliating climb-down. It was the first of many demonstrations of Musharraf's recklessness and lack of judgement.

The coup d'état the same year in which he seized power and drove Sharif into exile came out of the blue, but few Pakistanis shed tears for the departure of their incompetent elected leader. Military power grabs have been so frequent in Pakistani history that there was neither surprise nor shock at this latest one. I covered it for The Independent and I recall the eerie quietness of Islamabad after the event, the streets empty of both soldiers and civilians, and a sense almost of general relief that the other shoe had dropped.

What sort of man was Pakistan's new generalissimo? The architect of the Kargil fiasco tried to reinvent himself as a secular family man, Pakistan's "chief executive", photographed with his fragrant wife and the family lapdog at home, where it was widely rumoured that (like many upper-class Pakistanis) he was not at all averse to a drop of whisky. Pervez Musharraf once again demonstrated what a poor reader he was of his situation, creating an image that baffled and alienated devout Pakistanis while failing to win over the outside world, which refused to see him as anything but another Pakistani usurper.

Surrounded by flatterers, Musharraf was already, it seems, dreaming of converting his brute military power into popular celebrity and a landslide election victory. It is a fantastic dream that has possessed him ever since. It is the infatuation of a man of extraordinary vanity.

In the meantime, however, he found himself in a minefield, with India which hated and feared him on one side and Islamist militants growing ever more resentful on the other as he tried to rein them in. When I interviewed him in June 2002, he had survived more than one assassination attempt and was said to be forced to remain in his small, well-guarded corner of Rawalpindi simply to stay alive. He denied it robustly. "That's absolutely untrue," he said. "I move in accordance with my plan of movement, in accordance with what I want to do. I keep going around here in 'Pindi and in Islamabad. I go and have a coffee in Marriott or PC [Pearl Continental Hotel]. I'm moving very comfortably around." The idea that taking coffee in Islamabad's poshest hotels was a way of rubbing shoulders with the real Pakistan shows what kind of a bubble the Pakistani elite, Musharraf included, inhabited.

The terror attacks against the US in 2001 made Musharraf's position exquisitely difficult, as he attempted to persuade President Bush that he was a reliable ally against al-Qa'ida while hanging on to the loyalty of the military and the support of ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom were convinced that 9/11 was an Israeli plot. The only solution was to be very economical with the facts – by denying that Pakistan still supported the Taliban and promoted terrorist attacks in Indian Kashmir. Perhaps it was the smoothness with which he carried off such delusions that convinced Musharraf that he was a natural-born democrat.

When the Supreme Court insisted in 2002 that elections must be held, Musharraf took off his uniform and attempted to remake himself as a politician, wearing gleaming starched sherwani jackets and turbans and addressing thousands of bussed-in farmers at election rallies. But although a party that supported him won the general election he called in October 2002, Musharraf has never enjoyed mass support: rallies in Islambad boosting his candidacy drew pitifully small crowds. Yet such was his vanity that the penny never dropped.

He was President until 2007, then to hang on to power declared a state of emergency, sending troops into the Supreme Court to arrest the judges and seizing control of the media. But this latest manifestation of his attempt to have it both ways – to pose as a democrat until things went awry then show the iron fist – was his undoing. In 2008 he was forced to stand down under threat of impeachment and went into exile in London.

His return to Pakistan last month in the hope of regaining the presidency was the most quixotic episode yet in his long and strange career. The idea that he might out-Benazir the Bhuttos in terms of popular support was deranged. "Musharraf evidently overestimated his popularity," commented Raza Rumi, a political analyst. "There are certainly people in urban Pakistan who think that things were better under his tenure, but the majority do not find him a credible leader. He ruled on the strength of his uniform. Now that uniform has gone, and Pakistan has changed."

By humiliating and incarcerating Pakistan's most senior judges Musharraf had made powerful enemies, and he lacked the mass support that might have enabled him to browbeat them into submission. At the age of 69, his swaggering days are done.

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