Pakistan - After Musharraf's coup

Jan/Feb 2000

On 12th October 1999, units of the Pakistani army occupied the strategic points of the country's main cities. Prime minister Nawaz Sharif was put under house arrest, the national and provincial governments and assemblies were disbanded, as well as the Senate, and the constitution was suspended. Thereafter, the army chief of staff, General Pervez Musharraf, addressed the country on the state-controlled media. After a strongly-worded indictment of the previous regime's corruption and economic failure, he proclaimed himself "chief executive of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan" for "as long as it will take to restore proper conditions for democracy".

The coup was bloodless. Nawaz Sharif's regime collapsed like a pack of cards, despite the two-thirds majority he had won in the national assembly election only 32 months before. According to newspaper reports, there was hardly any protest in the streets against the coup, neither in the main industrial centre of Karachi, in the South, nor in the Northern Islamic fundamentalist strongholds.

In fact, judging from these reports, it would seem that the army takeover was welcomed with a certain sense of relief by a sizeable section of the population, including among the poorest. And the army chiefs were careful to reinforce this mood by stressing that although a state of emergency had been declared to enable the military to assume extraordinary powers, they had no intention of imposing martial law nor curtailing the freedom of expression and association. Whether they will stick to this, of course, is quite another matter given the Pakistani army's past repressive record.

In any case, this response to the coup should not come as a surprise, after the past eleven years of so-called "democracy".

Indeed, on the one hand, these years have been among the bloodiest in the country's history, due to an on-going power struggle between politico-religious factions, which has claimed many thousands of lives and spread terror among large sections of the population. On the other hand, these years saw a catastrophic drop in the living standard of the overwhelming majority of the population. This was due to a number of factors, including the plundering of imperialism and the pressures of its international agencies. But the most visible of these factors was the shameless looting of public finances and the economy by the tiny ruling elite and their politicians. The fact that the two prime ministers who alternated during these eleven years - Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto - were both dismissed from office twice for "corruption, nepotism and bad management", speaks for itself.

Today, on a whole range of social development indicators - e.g. child weight at birth and mortality, adult literacy, daily calorie intake per head, access to health, etc. - Pakistan ranks lower than countries which are much poorer in terms of domestic production per head. In other words, the country has the dubious privilege of being one of the most unequal societies among the poor countries.

In this context, and in the absence of political forces capable or willing to offer another policy to the poor masses, Musharraf's coup, which is ostensibly aimed at "bringing corruption to an end in the country" and at "restoring civil peace and national dignity", was probably bound to be seen with some sympathy. Musharraf's is the fourth successful military coup in the country's history - the previous ones dating back to 1958, 1969 and 1977. And at least two of his predecessors - General Ayub Khan in 1958 and General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 - also enjoyed, initially at least, a measure of popular support for similar reasons.

In its 52 years of existence, however, Pakistan has been ruled by the military for 25 years. This has not prevented corruption and nepotism from blossoming - including under military rule and within the army itself - nor political terrorism and instability from recurring. In reality, far from offering a solution to the country's problems, the army has always been part of these problems.

Poisoned inheritance

The partition of India, which led to the formation of Pakistan in 1947, was not based on any historical, ethnic or geographic logic. It was an artificial political settlement which produced artificial states.

Pakistan's Eastern part - today's Bangladesh - seceded within 14 years, at the cost of a terrible bloodbath, leaving scars which may well remain for many generations. But its Western part - the modern Pakistan - was not much less artificial. In ethnic terms, three of its four provinces were split right down the middle by the country's borders: the largest group, the Punjabis, was split in two by the border with India; the Baluch of Baluchistan by the Iranian border; the Pathans of the North West Frontier Province by the Afghan border.

The fact that the Punjabi landowners, who dominated the higher spheres of the state machinery, showed no regard for the country's ethnic minorities, provided a ferment for the development of Baluch and Pathan nationalism. In Baluchistan, in particular, this led to a nationalist uprising and a bloody civil war. It lasted nearly five years, between 1973 and 1977, and involved 100,000 regular soldiers, until the nationalist forces of the Baluchistan People's Liberation Front were finally crushed.

In entire areas of the largely feudal North Western Frontier Province, on the other hand, the central state lost any real control. These areas became the fiefdom of warlords and the rear-base of many of the fundamentalist paramilitary groups operating in the rest of the country, while the central state chose to turn a blind eye as long as these warlords remained divided.

There was also the separate case of Kashmir, which was claimed by both India and Pakistan. A first war, in 1949, resulted in the partition of Kashmir along the so-called "Line of Control". A second war, in 1965, in which the Pakistani army was heavily defeated, confirmed this partition. Thereafter Kashmir became the scene of a protracted war between the Indian army and nationalist and Islamic guerillas, supported by the Pakistani army - thereby keeping alive the threat of another war between the two countries.

Finally, there were the problems posed by the millions of refugees who had fled from India after the partition. Many of them - the "mohajir" as they were called - came from distant parts of India and had nothing in common with any of the original Pakistani population. The most educated "mohajir" were recruited into the administration. But there was no space for the vast majority in the mostly rural economy of Pakistan. They flocked into the towns of the Southern province of Sindh, mainly Karachi, where they formed the poorest part of a mostly unemployed proletariat. The 1980s saw the meteoric rise of a fa-right paramilitary organisation, the MQM, demanding an autonomous "mohajir" province around Karachi. The town became the scene of a rampant civil war between the MQM, the Fundamentalists and the army - a civil war which claimed several thousand lives every year in the first half of the 1990s. And although the death toll has gone down since, Karachi remains the playground of political mafias and far-right paramilitary groups.

The army's tutelage

Since its inception, therefore, Pakistan has been a huge powder keg with dozens of fuses which could set off an explosion at any time. The country's privileged class - mostly made of large landowners in the early years of Pakistan - was very weak. It was divided along ethnic and regional lines and, therefore, incapable of providing the country with any kind of unity. All this became blatant soon after independence, when the Muslim League, the leading force behind the setting up of Pakistan, collapsed into a galaxy of rival factions.

The Pakistani army, on the other hand, came straight out of the British-trained colonial army. Traditionally, the British had recruited soldiers from the regions of the colony which were least receptive to nationalist agitation - particularly from Punjab, a large part of which was now in Pakistan. The officers had come from aristocratic landowning families from Punjab and Pakistan's North West Frontier. When Pakistan's independence was declared therefore, a well-trained Pakistani army was already there to take over from the colonial military authorities, with a full cadre of officers of all ranks. And the army's heads were able to use the discipline of the military machine to protect it from the wrangles developing among politicians.

As a result the army soon emerged as the only force capable of keeping the country together if a major crisis threatened its integrity. This fact was indeed recognised by US imperialism, which, very early on, devoted significant resources to equipping and training the Pakistani army. Until the mid-1990s, Washington was to use it as one of its main instruments in the region - both to contain the influence of the USSR during the Cold War and subsequently to enforce its order in neighbouring Afghanistan and the Gulf.

When, in 1958, the question of the status of East Pakistan threatened to come to a head at the same time as social unrest was developing in the towns and rural areas of both parts of Pakistan, the army was called in. General Ayub Khan inaugurated a period of military rule which lasted 14 years. He was a pure product of British colonial training and his political views were summed up in a famous statement: "Democracy cannot work in a hot climate. To have a democracy we must have a cold climate as in Britain." Under his reign all political opposition was brutally suppressed, communist and nationalist activists were hunted down and trade unions were persecuted. At the same time, the first American military base was established in the north of the country, near the Afghan border. But Ayub also kickstarted industrial development - which the Pakistani privileged had shown little interest in, so far. State funds were used to subsidise the development of the existing small scale industry and to build new factories, which were then sold to rich families at "reasonable" prices.

In the end, however, the army proved incapable of preventing East Pakistan from seceding. In December 1971, after two years of large-scale massacres, India's military intervention forced Pakistani troops to surrender in East Pakistan, giving birth to Bangladesh. Given this humiliating defeat, which bolstered militant opposition in Pakistan, the army chose to withdraw from the political stage. It handed over power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of a recently formed populist party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which had won the election organised - and then disregarded - by the army the previous year. However, although the PPP's programme sounded radical, echoing the aspirations expressed by the growing mobilisation against the military, Bhutto's regime was established under the tutelage of army. A few old generals were retired, but by and large the same top brass remained in place. Bhutto was himself a former foreign minister under Ayub's rule and a member of a rich Sindhi landowning family. Significantly, the man he chose to head the army was general Tikka Khan, better known at the time as the "Butcher of Dacca". And in fact, it was under Bhutto's reign that the army was given the task of eradicating the nationalist movement in Baluchistan. During the period of Bhutto's rule - as during later "democratic" periods - the army remained in the shadows, but it was always there, ready to take over if necessary.

Indeed, six years later, when Bhutto proved no longer capable of containing civil unrest, the army came back. Bhutto's regime had become repressive and corrupt. The last straw was an extensive vote-rigging operation in the 1977 election, causing large demonstrations across the country. But what really led the army to stage a coup, was an agreement made by Bhutto with the opposition parties in which Bhutto agreed to release all jailed Baluch and Pathan nationalists and order the army back to its barracks in both provinces. This meant a threat both to the authority of the army and to the integrity of the country. The generals decided to take control and Bhutto was hanged two year later.

The regime of the new dictator, general Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq was probably the most viciously repressive that the country has experienced. Zia's reign coincided almost exactly with the war in Afghanistan. And the Pakistani army was the main channel of US aid to the Islamic resistance against the USSR in this war. This was reflected in the domestic policy of the Zia dictatorship, which helped the Islamic Fundamentalist far-right to occupy the political space left vacant by the suppressed opposition. Finally, in 1988, Zia, two dozen generals and a US ambassador died in a mysterious plane crash. This brought the regime to an end. The army withdrew once again to the shadows, leaving the front of the political stage to politicians, but remained ready to intervene.

Playing the Islamic card

Islamic Fundamentalism really developed under Zia as a result of a deliberate choice. But it came out of a process of "islamisation" of the state which began long before.

The founding leaders of Pakistan, particularly Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League in 1947, had never championed the idea of a Islamic state. They had used the Islamic identity as a rallying flag to build a power base for themselves, but most were western-educated and secular-minded. However Jinnah died in 1948 and his party collapsed shortly after. In 1956, when the civilian government was confronted with the rise of radical nationalism in East Pakistan and left-wing forces in West Pakistan, it turned to the mullahs and the traditional rural Islamic hierarchy for support. And to gain this support, Pakistan was formally declared an "Islamic state".

Subsequently this was to be a constant pattern. Each time the regime in power was confronted with the threat of social or radical unrest, it made some concessions to the most reactionary forces in order to win their support - that is mainly to the far-right Islamic fundamentalists. Even Ali Bhutto, despite his initial professed socialist views, mixed them with an allegiance to Islam: "Socialism is our economy, democracy is our policy, Islam is our religion" was the main slogan of his party's first election campaign in 1970.

For a long time however, these fundamentalist groups remained based in small geographical areas, with no real influence among the urban population. This changed under Zia's dictatorship.

From the early 80s, the war in Afghanistan resulted in large supplies of funds and weapons - mainly from the USA but also some Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia - being channelled by the Pakistani army to the Afghan Islamic resistance. Military training camps and refugee camps were set up along the border with Afghanistan in Baluchistan and the North Western Frontier Province. They became hunting grounds for all the existing Pakistani fundamentalist groups and many new ones, which often acted as intermediaries between the Afghans and the Pakistani army. Elsewhere - particularly in the Universities and among the unemployed youth - the same groups drafted in young Pakistani recruits for the "holy war" in Afghanistan. At the same time, some of the weapons that were meant to go into Afghanistan were intercepted by the fundamentalists and used to arm their own paramilitary groups in the rest of the country.

In its early days, Zia's regime adopted a repressive code partly modelled on medieval Islamic punishments (public flogging, arm amputation for thieves, stoning for adulterers, etc..). Although such sentences were seldom carried out, they created an atmosphere of submission. "Insulting Islam" became a criminal offence, which could attract the death penalty. This could be used as a convenient instrument to clamp down on any form of opposition, since it was up to the judge to decide whether the incriminating act, statement or writing was "insulting". All this gave a new respectability and legitimacy to the fundamentalists who often proceeded to take justice into their own hands in order to "make examples". The main beneficiary of Zia's regime, however, was the Jamaat-I-Islami (Party of Islam), a fundamentalist group linked to Saudi Arabia, whose armed groups were often used as auxiliaries by the army to break strikes or murder political opponents. Under Zia, it became a national party and built a significant base in all the main towns.

After Zia's death and the return of civilian rule, the fundamentalists ceased to enjoy such official status and most of Zia's medieval code was repealed - most, but not all of it, since for instance "insulting Islam" remains a criminal offence. Nevertheless the concessions to the fundamentalists went on. After the October 1993 election, for instance, Benazir Bhutto (the daughter of Ali Bhutto), who did not have a majority in the National Assembly, formed a ruling alliance with a smaller fundamentalist party, Jamaat-Ulema-I-Islami, providing this party with a profile which it would have never been able to achieve otherwise.

Under the following government, led by Nawaz Sharif, the growth of fundamentalist groups was helped by the breakdown of the state due to cuts in social expenditure. They took over basic social tasks, such as opening schools, clinics and job centres in the poor districts of the main towns, and even providing dowries to the poor for Islamic marriages. It has become normal for the Islamic schools controlled by the fundamentalists to provide military training. And in the present context of high unemployment and general poverty, being a fundamentalist paramilitary, who lives off the compulsory "generosity" of the population is becoming, for a significant number of Islamic school leavers, a way of escaping poverty and an enviable way of life.

At the same time, at the end of 1998, Sharif introduced his Sharia Bill. It was partly meant as a concession to the fundamentalists by proposing a partial islamisation of the legal system. However, its main objective was to reinforce Sharif's own personal power by allowing him to made decisions on a wide range of issues without any regard for the constitution or the courts. This was intended, in particular, to fend off allegations of corruption against him and to impose the introduction of new taxes which were being held up by the courts. Sharif managed to get the Bill passed in the national and provincial assemblies. But it was blocked by the Senate, which prompted him to issue an angry call to the mullahs to put pressure on the Senate to back down. Since then, this Bill has become the subject of a systematic campaign by the fundamentalists for the imposition of a much more drastic form of Sharia, allowing them to increase their profile.

The growth of corruption

Corruption has been one of the main features of the past eleven years. But again this goes back a long way and reflects primarily the parasitism of the country's weak privileged classes.

In the 70s, corruption and inefficiency had already been the reasons given by Ali Bhutto's regime to nationalise a significant section of the economy. However, these were not the only reasons. The industrial development initiated by the state under Ayub's rule had been brought to a halt as soon as the state had stopped to build new factories. Pakistani industrialists proved even unwilling to devote any money to maintain the factories they had bought on the cheap from Ayub. The fledgling industry was therefore threatening to go bust. As to the financial sector, it was more interested in usury loans or investment abroad than in investing in the local economy. Once again, the regime chose to use state resources to make up for the failings of the Pakistani capitalist class, but this time by resorting to nationalisations. So the banking and insurance sectors were brought under state ownership, together with 31 companies in heavy industry, moto-vehicle assembly, chemicals and utilities. Likewise, in the countryside, the atomisation of crop-processing industries into tiny units controlled by the rural middle-class was an obstacle to capitalist farming and large-scale cash crop production. So the production of wheat flour was taken over by the state, together with rice-milling and cotton-milling.

These nationalisations and the subsequent injection of state funds into these industries did produce some results in the short term. But very quickly they resulted in another form of nepotism by providing the politicians in power with large numbers of jobs in the nationalised industries with which they could reward the loyalty of their political allies. Public utilities, in particular, became well- known for their huge proportion of managers, whose salaries crippled the ability to invest or even maintain existing facilities. This has remained a major feature of the Pakistani political system ever since.

Over the past eleven years, corruption has become even more open. Government politics became a family business. While Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, his brother Shabbaz Sharif was chief minister of the provincial government of Punjab, while many of his Lahore-based clan's allies were given provincial positions. As to Ali Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, she appointed her husband to the ministry of investment in her government - the "bribe ministry" as one opposition paper put it at the time. No wonder both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif are now accused of having stashed away hundreds of millions of pounds in British and Swiss banks.

Corruption is prevalent at every level of society. A survey made by a Pakistani bank in 1995 showed that 78% of the 200 companies surveyed admitted to have bribed officials to escape compliance with the labour laws or avoid taxes. Successive governments have seen their tax receipts decrease over the years, partly because of avoidance by the wealthy, partly due to the fact that tax money tends to "disappear" mysteriously during its passage between tax payers and the Treasury.

In 1997, another survey showed that nearly half of those in receipt of bank loans had had to pay a bribe to some official of the nationalised banks, averaging 3.5% of the loan value. But if it takes a bribe to get a bank loans, it seems that a bribe is enough not to repay it too. Defaulted loans made by the country's nationalised banks represent an astounding total of £4.7bn , or almost the value of the country's annual exports. Out of this total, nearly 10% is owed by just 25 of the richest families, and one third by just 322 families and companies - among which are Nawaz Sharif's family, his brother's and the Sharif clan's company, Ittefaq Foundries.

In fact the entire state-owned economic apparatus has become the milch-cow of just a few dozen rich capitalist clans who use the funds of the state banks, or, for that matter, the production of public utilities, as their own. Indeed it is common for the major factories to have run up enormous electricity bills over the years, without anyone apparently ever objecting to it. At the same time, it is estimated that the Pakistani privileged have a total $50bn stashed away in foreign banks - or the equivalent of 80% of the country's annual domestic production.

The turn of the screw

From the 1980s onwards, the looting of the state economy by the capitalist class and the growing military budget led to a rapid increase in Pakistan's public debt. Yet, during the 80s, the country received a total of $50bn of foreign currency in aid, mostly from the US and Japan, and in remittances from Pakistani workers working abroad.

By the early 90s , this inflow of foreign currency decreased sharply. In the early 90s , the US reduced their aid on the grounds that Pakistan was developing a nuclear weapon (but also because, by that time, the war in Afghanistan was mostly over). At the same time, the Gulf War and the subsequent expulsion of large numbers of Pakistani workers from Middle-Eastern countries cut the currencies they were sending back home. Finally, following Pakistan's nuclear test, in May 1998, Japan also withdrew its aid to the country.

As a result, throughout the 90s , the country's external debt has increased rapidly. By 1995, Pakistan's public debt reached 87% of its domestic production and 97% in 1998. In addition, receipts from exports went down by 10% in 1998, due to the financial crisis in South East Asia. In May 1998, the government's foreign currency reserves reached such a low point that Nawaz Sharif simply froze $11bn worth of foreign currency bank deposits in Pakistan, which he used to make short-term repayments on the external debt. Just under a third of these deposits belonged to foreign banking institutions. The fact that western governments turned a blind eye to this measure probably indicates the seriousness of Pakistan's financial situation at that point.

This situation has put the country's finances entirely in the hands of the IMF. Over the 90s , various demands have been put on the Pakistani government by the IMF to reduce its expenditure, privatise its state-owned companies, increase tax receipts as well as the price of petrol.

Reducing social expenditure posed no problem to the successive governments. As mentioned before, the fundamentalists partly filled the gap left by school and hospital closures, but at the expense of the poor who were thus forced into dependence on the armed zealots. A large-scale programme of sackings in the state sector did meet with some resistance, however. There were large strikes, in 1998, against redundancies in the nationalised banks and public transport. Nevertheless, in the past two and a half years alone, 20,000 workers have been thrown out of the three main state-owned banks, 10,000 from state-owned industries, and many more thousands have lost their jobs due to the closure of local transport services.

Privatisation was another matter, as it encroached directly on one of the pillars of the establishment's nepotism. The process had begun in the early 90s , under Benazir Bhutto. But it only gave significant results during Sharif's last tenure, mainly through the sale of shares in state-owned companies. A total of £780m was officially raised by the government in this way. However, like the "elusive taxes" these funds never seemed to have materialised in the state's coffers. And many commentators have been asking what happened to them.

As to increasing taxes, this is has been a constant hurdle throughout the 90s . Each time the government made an attempt to impose the new income tax on farmers (the first in Pakistan's history) which the IMF demanded, the ruling politicians came up against the determined opposition of the landed privileged - the very same layer which formed the core of their social base. Likewise, when they tried to impose a General Sales Tax (GST, a sort of VAT) or increase the price of petrol they came up against the opposition of both the urban poor and shopkeepers. Moreover, the fundamentalists have been particularly active in whipping up the anger of town traders against GST and organising street demonstrations and strikes. As a result, both on the land income tax and on GST, Nawaz Sharif was forced repeatedly into humiliating retreats.

No expectations from the military

Such is the background against which the army has now stepped in to "sort out the mess".

What exactly were the main factors in the army's coup? Among these factors are certainly the general economic situation, the lack of credit of the parties and political institutions, the impotence of the politicians to impose the measures demanded by the IMF (on which all planned IMF loans are conditional) and their paralysis (or complacency) in front of the increasing activity of the armed political mafias in the country (the only armed mafia that should be allowed in the streets being the army itself!).

But other factors, which have to do with the specific interests of the army as an institution of the state, may have played an even more decisive role in prompting Musharraf to take power.

As part of his austerity programme, Nawaz Sharif tried, in 1997, to reduce military expenditure. The army chiefs opposed this by trying to get Sharif removed from office by the courts. They succeeded but, in a last minute deal, Sharif agreed to withdraw his threats to the defence budget and the army allowed him to remain in office. Nevertheless, although defence still absorbs 25% of the government's budget, there have been some cuts in the army made by transferring officers and soldiers to civilian posts in the state industry and administration. This, however, could not go on for ever given the limited number of jobs available in the public sector and the planned privatisation programme.

Then Sharif seems to have made the calculation that if Pakistan's relations with India could be normalised and the issue of Kashmir settled, this would make the army's position a lot weaker and allow him to make the cuts he wanted. This led to a process of secret negotiations between Delhi and Islamabad, under the auspices of the USA, leading to a joint declaration between the three countries in February 1999. Fearing that their claim to usefulness would be jeopardised, the military then staged the " Kargil incident" in spring. Pakistani irregulars were infiltrated onto the Kargil heights of Kashmir on the other side of the Line of Control. They were spotted by Indian forces who attacked them and the Pakistani military came to their rescue, leading to a major border incident involving the artillery and air force on both sides. This forced Sharif to issue a joint statement with Clinton, in July, admitting Pakistan's responsibility in the incident and pledging the withdrawal of the guerillas. But it was too late. The incident had effectively torpedoed the negotiations with India and the army had achieved its aims.

Despite this success, the army had other issues to settle with Sharif. Already, at the beginning of 1999, he appointed a number of officers known for their fundamentalist sympathies to key positions. But fundamentalism is becoming an increasing problem for the army establishment. As young officers are now more and more likely to come from Islamic schools than from the sparse elite secular schools, rival fundamentalist groups are making inroads in the officers' caste, thereby weakening the army's unity. So Sharif had to be put in check on this account too.

Musharraf's coup appears, therefore, as the final stage in a power struggle between Sharif and the army. And given the response to the coup, it seems now that Sharif has lost this power struggle.

What will the army do now? In one of his first political statements, Musharraf made a point of distancing himself from the "bigots", calling for those who use religion for their particular interests to be left aside. In a subsequent interview, he declared his admiration for Kemalism , the Turkish secular nationalist movement of the early 20th century. This attracted the immediate condemnation of all fundamentalist parties but it also spelt out the fact that Musharraf will stop the concessions to the fundamentalists, for the time being at least.

The inclusion of certain individuals in Musharraf's first government gives an indication of his intentions. His finance minister is none other than the vice-president of CityBank , loaned by the American giant for the time being - certainly an ideal intermediary with the IMF. Foreign affairs have been given to Pakistan's leading negotiator at the Shimla agreement with India in 1971, who is know to be a "hawk" on Kashmir. And one of the two civilians sitting on Musharraf's "inner council", the National Security Council, is a lawyer who used to be general Zia's legal adviser in the 80s, and helped him to dress many of the dubious decisions of his dictatorship in legal clothes. Here we have all the ingredients of a pro-imperialist and anti-Indian policy, which is firmly rooted in the traditions of Pakistan's past military dictatorships. In particular Musharraf is clearly out to implement the IMF's demands - i.e. to make the poor masses pay for the country's catastrophic situation.

Already the implementation of Sharif's tax plans is underway. The GST has now been declared enforceable, the price of petrol was increased by 10% in December and farmers have been warned that the planned income tax will come into force this year. As to the Pakistani poor, they got a taste of what the regime has in store for them when a demonstration involving thousands of railworkers demanding better wages was broken by baton charges in Lahore, in December.

As to the main plank of the military's programme, the fight against corruption, what can be expected? Just after taking power, Musharraf gave loan defaulters until 16th November to repay their debt or sort out a deal with the banks. When the deadline came, only £96m had been recovered, or just over 2% of the total. Since then several politicians, including former ministers, have been arrested. A list of the large debtors has been published, which includes the name of a former head of the Navy under Benazir Bhutto.

But, while the army may give the politicians they want to discredit, and those who are closely associated with them, a run for their money, will it do the same cleaning operation within its own ranks? That is much less likely.

Yet, particularly since the 80s and Zia's dictatorship, the army is without question the largest mafia operation in the country. The war in Afghanistan was accompanied by the meteoric rise of drugs and arms trafficking along the Afghan border, with the Afghan militias selling drugs in exchange for the weapons offered by the Pakistani military. After the war was over and US subsidies to the Pakistani army were withdrawn, the Pakistani army carried on with this sort of traffic, but this time on a more centralised basis, in order to make up for the lost income. When the Talibans established themselves in Afghanistan, with the direct help of Pakistan, this traffic took on a new momentum, involving, in addition to drugs, all kinds of goods smuggled through Afghanistan into Pakistan. The Pakistani Treasury may have complained under Sharif that it got no tax out of 30% of the goods imported into Pakistan - but the army did, in the form of the cut they took on the smuggling.

As to that other form of corruption which allows the country's richest families to milk state resources at will, the army will do nothing against it. If only because this is the main source of income for the country's capitalist class, the origin of the $50bn they hold in foreign banks. Nor will the military clamp down on the brutal exploitation of tens of millions of Pakistani poor who feed these corrupt exploiters with their sweat and their lives. In Pakistan, as in any other capitalist country, the army is first and foremost the instrument of the domination of the capitalist class. It may occasionally impose some restraint on the privileged, thereby defending their interests against themselves in a sense, but it will not do anything which might undermine the social and political power of these propertied classes.

In Pakistan, past generations have seen what military rule and what civilian regimes were about. They saw dictatorships and elected governments degenerate quickly into criminal mafias and bloody butchers. The benign face of Musharraf's dictatorship should fool no-one. Behind it is the same old parasitic class, which used to be behind Sharif, with its ruthless exploitation of the poor. In Pakistan as elsewhere, getting rid of the Sharifs and their like will require ridding the country of its capitalist parasites, their army and their system of exploitation.

4 January 2000