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In Crisis-Ravaged Pakistan, The Generals Are Waiting In The Wings

U.S. and Pakistani service members help flood victims exit a U.S. Army helicopter in Khwazakhela
The words "this is a critical time for Pakistan" have been used so often since the country gained independence in 1947 that it has become virtually meaningless. Practically every ruler and ruling party in the country’s history has used it, usually as a prelude to the intervention of the military in political life.

Nonetheless, when one considers the widespread devastation caused by the ongoing floods, a contracting economy that is kept afloat by foreign loans, the country’s worst-ever energy crisis, the political crisis caused by the growing chasm between the ruling party and the judiciary, worsening regional and ethnic divisions, and the Taliban-driven security crisis, a pretty strong case can be made that Pakistan is indeed at a critical juncture.

Considering the gravity of the situation and the sluggish response of the elected government to the flooding disaster, it was only to be expected that there would be calls for the army to intervene. And that’s exactly what has happened.

Recently, Altaf Hussain, the self-exiled leader of the Urdu-speaking community, called for "patriotic" generals to carry out a new "French Revolution" in Pakistan. Hussain also called for the public hanging of corrupt politicians, apparently without taking into consideration the horror of public executions in Afghanistan under the Taliban or in the regions of Pakistan where the Taliban are entrenched now.

Hussain's appeal to the generals has provoked a lively furor in political spheres.

In the light of speculation that the army played no small part in leaving the civilian government -- and particularly the much-maligned President Asif Ali Zardari -- so far behind in responding to the flooding crisis in Sindh and Punjab provinces, many observers expected opportunist politicians to turn to the military.

Public Sympathy

But such a direct call for martial law coming from a man whose party is a major ally of the ruling Pakistan People's Party -- which Zardari heads -- was beyond all expectations. And although the call for military intervention itself was disheartening, the negative reaction of most political parties -- led by Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) -- has been encouraging. Not only has Hussain been rebuffed, but a strong signal has been sent to the military as well that, despite the current crisis, its involvement in politics is no longer welcomed.

However, the development is still potentially dangerous. Although the country's largest parties have condemned Hussain's statements, there has been no serious reaction from the religious parties or from the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, the party that supported General Pervez Musharraf throughout his years in power.

In addition, there may be considerable public sympathy for Hussain's idea. In the flood-ravaged regions, it is the army -- not the civilian government -- that is seen as doing the most to help the victims, carrying out relief-and-rescue operations and distributing food and other assistance.

In major cities such as Peshawar, Lahore, and Quetta -- which have been the scene of sectarian violence and terror attacks -- people are growing increasingly skeptical of the government's ability to maintain security.

As a result, although most Pakistanis blame the previous military dictators for the country's present predicament, they may nonetheless welcome a "savior" from among the generals.

Daud Khattak is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL