Musharraf tries tea and cakes to counter critics

Andrew Buncombe
Friday 04 January 2008 01:00

The charm offensive began with the tea and cakes served on the presidential china and continued as Pervez Musharraf warmly welcomed the journalists he had invited to attend his weekly broadcast to the people of Pakistan. It ended when he received his first question.

How could Pakistan make a peaceful transition to democracy in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto's assassination, it was put to him, when many people in the country believed he had blood on his hands? Mr Musharraf noticeably bristled in his charcoal suit. "Frankly, I consider that question beneath my dignity to answer," the President said, half suppressing a snarl. "I am not a feudal, I am not a tribal. I have been brought up in a very educated and civilised family that believes in values... My family did not believe in killing people, assassinating, intriguing. And that is all I want to say."

A week after Ms Bhutto was killed while leaving an election rally in Rawalpindi, Mr Musharraf invited the international media to sit in the audience of his weekly broadcast From The President's House. Speaking at his official residence in Islamabad, he said he wanted to "interact" with international reporters, even though he said he rarely agreed with anything they wrote about him.

It was a strange hour-and-a-half question and answer session, held in a hall in which hung 17 chandeliers, as the President veered between the obtuse and direct. He admitted he was not fully happy with the investigation into Ms Bhutto's death, which was why he had invited British detectives to assist the inquiry. At the same time, he repeatedly accused the foreign media of failing to understand his country and of seeking to export Western ideas and values.

He repeatedly referred to the government's ongoing conflict with militants, whom he blamed for Ms Bhutto's death. "Please understand Pakistan," he said. "This is a different country from your own."

Asked whether the government had failed to provide Ms Bhutto with adequate security, Mr Musharraf sought to place the blame on her and other members of her Pakistan's People's Party (PPP). It had been her decision to stand up through the sunroof of her bullet-proof car, he said. Likewise she had chosen the police chief she wanted to head her security. How was the government to blame for that, he asked.

For all the various questions that were thrown at him, Mr Musharraf battled on. He insisted that he was determined to proceed with parliamentary elections and was a firm believer in the "essence" of democracy.

When asked how someone with such a purported love of democracy could lock up individuals such as Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry and leading lawyer Atizaz Ahsan both of whom remain under house arrest Mr Musharraf launched into a long, circuitous answer and accused both men of undermining stability in the country. Mr Ahsan, he said, had been "agitating".

Some credit must surely go to Mr Musharraf for putting himself in the firing line, but at the end of From The President's House there had been no great revelation. If the programme had been to illuminate the people of Pakistan as to the circumstances of what took place a week ago and who may have been responsible for a murder that convulsed the nation, it certainly failed.

Instead one was left wondering why Mr Musharraf appeared so desperate to explain himself to the world? Does he genuinely believe he is badly misunderstood? A clue, perhaps, came in his final exhortation to the media words that were cut from the television broadcast. "Please," he said. "I am not a fraud, I am not a liar."

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