A cool early autumn evening in Islamabad. In the Ultimate Fitness gym, in sector F6/2, the usual half dozen local bodybuilders are building their bodies. They have torsos thick with slabs of muscle. The meat, shrink-wrapped in skin, hangs from their shoulders like cuts in a butcher's shop. Dance music pounds out from a battered stereo. Shortly after 6 pm, the music is off and the gym has gone quiet. Everyone is clustered before the television. For once it isn't showing mtv.
Instead, the cnn logo shows in the bottom corner of the screen. Next to it, five words: Attempted Military Coup In Pakistan. I swear quietly. It was the evening of October 11 last year. I had returned from Delhi in the afternoon, around 4 pm. After a shower, and a call to my newsdesk—"no, nothing happening, very quiet"—I walked through the silent, dark Islamabad streets to the gym. I can remember sending an e-mail to a friend in Brussels, a former South Asia correspondent himself."Wondering what the hell I am going to write about," the message said.
In fact, the cnn broadcast had it slightly wrong. By 6 pm, there was nothing 'attempted' about the actions of General Musharraf. The coup had been successful. Once more the men in khaki were in power in Pakistan. The events of the day have now been played and replayed in minute detail. About the time I flew in from Delhi, Gen Musharraf was in the cockpit of a 747 on its way back from Sri Lanka, with another 260-odd passengers in the fuselage behind him. He had just been told by a senior general, Mohammed Aziz, that Sharif was trying to take advantage of his absence to replace him as chief of the army staff. By the time I had taken a battered yellow taxi down the 15-mile stretch of motorway linking the airport to Islamabad and had got home and had a shower, Pakistan State TV had sent out a special broadcast announcing his removal. A well-rehearsed plan to seize key sites was already under way. At 6.11 the TVs went off—including the one in the gym—and, as I found when I tried to ring London, most of the country's phones had been disconnected too.
People said it at the time but it has been shown to be true: seizing power was the easy bit. I remember a senior officer laughing when I complimented him on the speed and success of the operation. "What do you think we are here for?," he joked. "Plan A has always been dealing with an Indian invasion. Plan B has been taking power in our own country." There wasn't, it is now clear, much of a plan for what to do next. But when they did take power, what a sense of joy there was. Only in Lahore, the home town of Sharif, was there dismay. Elsewhere there was dancing on the streets, rallies, marches—all in support of the dapper, softly spoken ex-commando who now ran the country.
I remember listening to Musharraf's second speech to the nation five days after the coup. "We have hit rockbottom," the general said. It was a good speech; an admission of the essential failure of the country in so many ways, an expression of hope, and a faith. The next afternoon we met Musharraf himself. In the gardens of the official coas residence in the cantonment of Rawalpindi he had The Observer (my newspaper), the bbc and a Turkish TV crew for tea. He was charming, authoritative and clearly enjoying himself. He showed us his two dogs, Dot and Buddy. I can remember traces of dandruff on the collar of his striped shirts.
The interview played well internationally, less well at home.The mullahs objected to the dogs—unclean in Islam. In retrospect, it was the first shot across the bows from the religious right. Since then Musharraf, an essentially moderate man, has been fighting, and often losing, a war of attrition with the 'beards.' It is a battle, seen again and again in Pakistan, for the country's divided soul. What comes first? The Islamic or the Republic.
At the end of that week, we saw what had come first for Sharif. We took the magnificent road that swings south of Lahore and on to the Sharif family estates. There peacocks strutted across landscaped lawns and stunning new houses—if you like a lot of smoked glass, brass and satellite dishes—lay linked by a brand new driveway. It was the Versailles of Pakistan, though without even the Bourbons' dubious taste.
A few months later Sharif was convicted. It was a just decision and one that must have been a relief to Musharraf. The general perception overseas and at home was that the court proceedings had been, at least for Pakistan, relatively fair. The general had made a mistake by forcing the country's judges to, effectively, swear allegiance to the regime or resign but otherwise the army's credibility was intact.
But otherwise General Musharraf, despite all his undoubted energy and commitment, seems to be sinking into the familiar old morass of Pakistani politics that thickens around anyone trying to change anything like watery but hardening clay. The irony in Pakistan is that everyone holds such a fierce and fiery conception of their national izzat, such an almost anachronistic patriotism (not unmirrored in India) but rarely shows any great willingness to sacrifice their own interests, or those of their immediate community, for the greater good. So new taxes, essential to raise Pakistan off the financial bottom that it has been scraping for decades, are fiercely opposed.
And did life change for the vast majority of Pakistanis last October? Of course not. Sitting in my flat in north London—I have been booted upstairs to a new job—I think about the people I met, the people I befriended in Pakistan. I think about my Christian servants. Their only hope was that the army might restore power to the shanty towns to which people of their faith were consigned in the centre of Islamabad. I don't know if they've got it yet. I know that their treatment at the hands of the mullahs and the judges won't have improved. I think about my Afghan friends in Peshawar, some thrown out of university following discriminatory laws enacted by Sharif's stooges in the North West Frontier Province and of all the people who I interviewed, bought pakora or sweet chai from, in Faisalabad, in Karachi, in Quetta, in Gilgit and Skardu. I wonder if the jawans who looked after me during the Kargil conflict, offering their meagre rations to the visitor to their frontline bunkers as Indian shells howled and thundered through the air above us, are better off. What, I ask myself, has the military done for them or their family in the tough little mohallas of Kohat or Gujranwala or Ghizar? Is life better, worse, neither?
The answer, of course, is the latter. Pakistan's problems are so complex, so intractable, that even Musharraf, who frankly I think has generally the right ideas of how to get Pakistan back on the right path, runs into trouble. He, like all Pakistanis, is not so much caught between a rock and a hard place as between a landslide and a wall of graphite. I don't know if Musharraf can sort things out.I think he can do better than many. He certainly is far more honest and far less self-serving than many leaders inflicted on that undeserving country, and, indeed, undeserving region.
But whether the next year will see any great changes I don't know. Like every Pakistani I met in my two years in the country, I doubt, and I hope. l
(Jason Burke was The Observer's South Asia Correspondent based in Islamabad from early 1998 to April of this year.)