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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 November 2007, 13:41 GMT
Deja vu in Pakistan power struggle
By Lyse Doucet
BBC News, Pakistan

The imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan this week is another setback for anyone hoping for the restoration of democracy. The move came shortly after the return to Pakistan of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. She was put under house arrest on Friday although the detention order was lifted the same day.

I often have this strange sense of deja vu in Pakistan, a feeling of having been through this before - seen it, and done it.

There is a sense, at moments, of a place where time has stood still.

Anti-Musharraf banner during a demonstration in Islamabad (Photo: Aamir Quershi/AFP/Getty)
Anti-Musharraf demonstrations have increased in recent weeks

A sense which stays with me in the same way the heat clings to the skin here, as well as the dust. The way the sweetly scented fragrance of tuberoses never leaves you, or the taste of very milky tea offered wherever you sit in a country of legendary hospitality.

This is a nation that goes round and round in political circles.

Delicate balance

It has struggled for decades - and still struggles - to get the balance right between the army and the politicians, on a spectrum running somewhere between a boisterous democracy and iron-fisted dictatorship.

In a place which has been ruled by the military for about half of its 60-year history, I have seen captains become colonels become generals and then retire but, even then, they hover in the wings, speaking out in public or scheming behind the scenes.

Politicians grow older, greyer, and sometimes fatter but the same ones have dominated the political landscape ever since I started coming here nearly 20 years ago.

And human rights activists, whose bravery can be nothing short of heroism, have campaigned against one military ruler and discredited political leader after another.

And they would have been on the streets protesting again in the past few days if they had not been rounded up, along with hundreds, possibly thousands, of other political figures, as part of Gen Musharraf's crackdown against the critics of emergency rule.

Military distrust

So, when I sat down this week to interview the opposition leader and two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, I remarked on how familiar it all felt and sounded.

Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto (Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Ms Bhutto was briefly put under house arrest

Now, like then, her supporters push and shove and punch the air shouting at ear-splitting volume, "Jeay Bhutto, Jeay Bhutto, Long Live Bhutto!"

Ms Bhutto is back from eight years in self-imposed exile, having done a deal with Gen Musharraf to come home. Some hope she will fight and win another election.

I reminded her of a press conference in 1988 after her first election victory.

Back then, there was also the issue of how she would be able to work with a military which has always distrusted her Pakistan People's Party.

She wants to be seen as the face of democracy, not the political leader who has stood apart from the others in talking to Gen Musharraf's team

I still remember raising my hand at that press conference and asking about reports she would be meeting army brass who brought an end to martial law after the mysterious death of the former leader of the country, Gen Zia ul-Haq.

"Who had requested the meeting," I asked then. "You or the army?"

In other words, who was really in charge?

She did not really answer my question in 1988.

So I asked it again, in a different way this week, just before we started recording the interview - remarking on how it now seemed she was still in the same place, trying to find a way to work with the military.

Her reply was a startled angry look. I realised I had struck a sensitive nerve.

She wants to be seen as the face of democracy, not the political leader who has stood apart from the others in talking to Gen Musharraf's team rather than shunning him as a discredited president trying to hold on to power.

President General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan (Photo: AP/BK Bangash)
Gen Musharraf's dealings with Ms Bhutto are a sensitive matter

She described other moments when it felt the clock had stopped, telling me with great amusement how she entered her Islamabad home this week and found it much as she had left it.

There were magazines from 1999, the year she left Pakistan to escape corruption charges she insists were fabricated.

On the front cover of one glossy magazine, there was Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister who replaced her in 1990 when she was first dismissed during her first term on corruption charges.

Now Nawaz Sharif is in exile.

And her bedroom was much as she left it in 1999, the small glass bottles of very bright nail polish she no longer wears and smart shalwar kameezes - the fashionable tunics and trousers of the time - that no longer fit.

But now Ms Bhutto herself is back in fashion, promoted by Washington and London as the democratic quota Gen Musharraf needs if he is to move this country from military to truly civilian rule.

And, like nearly two decades ago, Ms Bhutto has the power to bring her loyal supporters onto the streets.

So once again this week I found myself standing in front of coils of razor wire and police barricades blocking the main avenue leading to the parliament, blocking the protesters.

Many years ago, I cannot remember exactly when, I had recorded a report on that spot which talked about a country at war with itself.

And this week I found the words coming back into my head, as events on the ground repeated themselves.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 10 November, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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