Interview : Sarah Halifa-Legrand

Sarah Halifa-Legrand: Barely back in Pakistan after an eight-year exile, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto just escaped a double attack, at present still not claimed, that killed at least 133 and wounded at least 248. Who wants her dead?

Sara Daniel: Shortly before she returned to Pakistan, a Taliban commandant had made a death threat against Benazir Bhutto. But, in fact, she was threatened from all sides, beginning with the whole range of Pakistani Islamists. Bhutto had made very strong declarations about them just before returning to Pakistan, promising to eradicate the Islamist threat from her country. Also, she returned to the country with the support of the Americans, who hope she’ll share power with President Musharraf following the legislative elections scheduled for January 2008, which is not designed to please anti-American Islamists and anti-Musharraf elements. On top of that, she has announced explicitly that she wants to cooperate much more than Musharraf has with the United States in the war against terrorism, even if it means authorizing the Americans to launch a raid into the tribal zones where Osama bin Laden is supposedly hiding.

There’s enough there to attract multiple enemies…. Those who could want her dead are first of all the tiny Taliban and al-Qaeda groups – bin Laden having moreover declared on one of his last videos that Pakistan was about to be one of his priority targets. Bhutto had already undergone Islamist pressure from other quarters that did not accept a woman at the head of the country when she was prime minister. They certainly do not look favorably on the return to Pakistan of this woman they perceive as an errant daughter of the West. A faction of the Pakistani secret services, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was blamed by one of Musharraf’s deputies for the attacks that just took place. Some factions of those services in fact support the Taliban and are involved in the arms and drug traffic in Afghanistan, and could obviously want to get rid of Bhutto to keep their hands free. In Pakistan, where nothing is watertight, it’s difficult to know the true allegiances of one or another person. Even members of the police force appear, when questioned, to be pro-Islamist and ultra-aggressive against the government they are supposed to protect. Now, Bhutto herself depends on the ISI and the police force for her own personal security. Finally, it is also conceivable that Musharraf himself could be tempted to get Bhutto out of the way, should he want to impose a state of emergency, which is not totally out of the question. Altogether, that makes for many people who are against her….

The fact that she has tried to present herself as a good Muslim is not enough. At her arrival, she passed under the Koran, kissed the sacred book, etc. She has decided to pay close attention to her image. She had already come to a recent CNN interview with her husband, “Mr. 10 Percent,” (so-called because of the corruption cases that put him into prison) even though they no longer live together.

Bhutto is an extremely courageous woman – in spite of all that one may, justifiably, reproach her with – who has taken great risks. She had already been the target of attacks and her two brothers have been killed. But that has not stopped her. At her arrival, she started by mingling with the crowd, although she knew very well she was in danger. She also wanted to make a tour of the country to verify her popularity. But perhaps now she has taken the measure of the danger she runs.

Yet Bhutto had just been welcomed by 250,000 people in Karachi for her return from exile. How do you explain the discrepancy between these attacks and that welcome that had seemed to augur so well several hours before?

One should refrain from rushing to judgment: As much as the attacks cannot be interpreted as a sign of her unpopularity, just so should the crowd that greeted her also not be seen as a sign of her great popularity. Here’s what I mean. In Pakistan, it’s quite easy to mobilize crowds. We should also not forget that 250,000 people are nothing compared to the million Pakistanis who came to greet Benazir Bhutto the first time, in 1986. Moreover, if she chose to land in Karachi, that’s because it’s her city, capital of the Sind province, which is her fief. Bhutto knew she would be warmly welcomed. In this province, she is adulated as an icon, a guru. Elsewhere in Pakistan, people are much less enthusiastic.

Finally, Bhutto is returning to Pakistan at a time when President Musharraf has become totally unpopular, detested by the vast majority of Pakistanis. Even though she was extraordinarily corrupt when she was in power, even though she supported and financed the Taliban, and even though it’s the Americans who have put her forward on the stage, wanting her to come to an agreement with Musharraf that targets power-sharing between the two of them, even though the Pakistanis are no dupes and do not think, as she would like to have us believe, that she will re-establish democracy in the country, in the eyes of Pakistanis, she nonetheless represents an alternative to the generals’ regime. And her father (executed in 1979 by General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime), founder of the Pakistani People’s Party (PPP), the party to which she is heir, is a symbol of resistance to the regime. The result is that Benazir Bhutto is credited with a sort of democratic aura. Hence also, the popularity of the PPP in the Sind and Punjab provinces. This party, more popular than Islamist parties, could win a quarter of the vote in the upcoming legislative elections.

If Benazir Bhutto were to resume the post of prime minister, as the Americans seem to hope, will she have any real room for maneuver?

It would be necessary first of all for the Pakistani Supreme Court to validate both Musharraf’s election to the presidency and the amnesty law he had passed to allow Bhutto to return to Pakistan; those two verdicts are still not in. On the amnesty question, President Musharraf has decided to change sides and put an end to all prosecution against Bhutto for the corruption affairs that had stained her so extremely while she was prime minister that they brought her to bay so she left in exile. The fact that Musharraf bestows this favor on her that he recently rejected for Nawaz Sharif (another former prime minister prosecuted for corruption who was not authorized to return from exile and who, about a month ago when his plane landed in Pakistan, had to immediately take off again) is a good illustration that there are double standards. In the end, one mustn’t delude oneself. Should Bhutto accede to the post of Prime Minister by sharing power with Musharraf, she will have no latitude; nothing will change, except the façade. In fact, the army will continue to rule the country.

(Translation: Leslie Thatcher ) .

Sara Daniel