Pervez Musharraf (1943-2023): Former military ruler of Pakistan dies

He seized power in a bloodless coup and later led Pakistan into aiding the US war in Afghanistan.

Published : Feb 06, 2023 13:53 IST

Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad in 2013.

Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad in 2013. | Photo Credit: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP

Pakistan’s exiled former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, the architect of the 1999 Kargil War who became a key US ally during the “war on terror”, died in a Dubai hospital on February 5 aged 79 after a long illness.

Musharraf seized power in a 1999 bloodless coup and was acting simultaneously as Pakistan’s army chief, chief executive, and president when the 9/11 attacks on the United States took place.

The general twice suspended the constitution and was accused of rigging a referendum shoring up his power, as well as rampant rights abuses including rounding up opponents during his nearly nine-year rule. Nonetheless, he became Washington’s chief regional ally during their invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan.

The decision—made after the US issued a “for us or against us” ultimatum—put him in the crosshairs of Islamist militants, who made several attempts on his life. But it also earned Pakistan a huge influx of foreign aid which bolstered the economy.

Divisive figure

In Pakistan, where the military remains supremely powerful and enjoys significant support, Musharraf is a divisive figure.

“There was good in him,” 69-year-old retired civil servant Naeem Ul Haq Satti said in Islamabad. “But his one act, which will be remembered throughout history, was he violated the constitution,” he added. “The most important thing a country has is its constitution.”

Musharraf a former special forces commando, was the main architect of the Kargil War that took place months after then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif signed a historic peace accord with his Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Lahore.

After his misadventure in Kargil, Musharraf deposed Nawaz Sharif in the last of a string of military coups that roiled Pakistan since its founding amid the bloody 1947 partition of India. He ruled the nuclear-armed state after his 1999 coup through tensions with India, an atomic proliferation scandal, and an Islamic extremist insurgency. He stepped down in 2008 while facing possible impeachment.

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Later, Musharraf lived in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid criminal charges, despite attempting a political comeback in 2012. But poor health plagued his last years. He maintained a soldier’s fatalism after avoiding a violent death that always seemed to be stalking him as Islamic militants twice targeted him for assassination.

“I have confronted death and defied it several times in the past because destiny and fate have always smiled on me,” Musharraf once wrote. “I only pray that I have more than the proverbial nine lives of a cat.”

Rare illness

Musharraf’s family announced in June 2022 that he had been hospitalized for weeks in Dubai while suffering from amyloidosis, an incurable condition in which proteins build up in the organs. They later said he also needed access to the drug daratumumab, which is used to treat multiple myeloma. That bone marrow cancer can cause amyloidosis.

Shazia Siraj, a spokeswoman for the Pakistani Consulate in Dubai, confirmed his death and said diplomats were providing support to his family.

The Pakistani military also offered its condolences as did Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of the prime minister Musharraf overthrew in 1999. “May God give his family the courage to bear this loss,” Sharif said.

Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi offered words of condolence to Musharraf’s family, with former PM Imran Khan following suit hours later.

A Pakistan air force source said that Musharraf’s body would be flown back to Pakistan on February 6, aboard a civilian liner or UAE air force jet.

Conflict at Pakistan’s doorstep

Musharraf ruled Pakistan for nearly nine years, starting when then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attempted to remove him as army chief. Many Pakistanis handed out sweets to celebrate his 1999 coup, which ended a corrupt and economically disastrous administration, and soon turned on the tap of foreign aid.

“Pakistan’s decision under Musharraf to join the war against terror turned out to be a boon,” analyst Hasan Askari said. However, it also brought the conflict to Pakistan’s doorstep, with an explosion in militancy in the northwestern regions bordering Afghanistan.

“He was neither a good man nor a bad man,” said 45-year-old gem merchant Muhammad Ayaz in the northwestern provincial capital of Peshawar. “Thousands died in terrorist attacks but business boomed during his tenure. He made graveyards and at the same time built housing developments.”

Fall from favour

Born on August 11, 1943, in New Delhi in an Urdu-speaking middle-class family, Musharraf was the middle son of a diplomat. His family joined millions of other Muslims in migrating to Pakistan after the Partition in 1947. Musharraf entered the Pakistani army at age 18 and made his career there as Islamabad fought three wars against India.

Following his failed attempt in 1999 to capture territory in Kashmir, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had ordered Musharraf’s dismissal as the army chief flew home from a visit to Sri Lanka and denied his plane landing rights in Pakistan, even as it ran low on fuel. On the ground, the army took control and after he landed, Musharraf took charge.

Yet as ruler, Musharraf nearly reached a deal with India on Kashmir, according to US diplomats at the time. He also worked toward a rapprochement with Pakistan’s longtime rival.

But his easygoing persona failed to mask the blurring of the division between the state and army, and Musharraf fell out of favour after trying to sack the chief justice and failing to control an unravelling economy. He famously said the constitution “is just a piece of paper to be thrown in the dustbin”—and implemented emergency rule when a bid to sack the country’s chief justice sparked months of protests.

After the December 2007 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, the national mood soured even more and crushing losses suffered by his allies in the 2008 elections left him isolated. He resigned that same year and was forced into exile.

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Musharraf’s plan to return to power in 2013 was dashed when he was disqualified from running in an election won by Nawaz Sharif—the man he deposed in 1999. He was charged over the slaying of Bhutto and placed under house arrest as a series of cases against him were brought before the courts.

In 2013 Human Rights Watch urged the government of the day to hold him accountable for “widespread and serious human rights violations” during his rule. In 2016 a travel ban was lifted and Musharraf flew to Dubai to seek medical treatment.

Three years later, he was sentenced to death in absentia for treason, related to his 2007 decision to impose emergency rule. However, a court later nullified the ruling.

(with inputs from PTI, AP, and AFP)

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