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Islamabad notebook - Good-bye SS Mushi?

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Islamabad

President Musharraf with the Pakistani flag
The president may not be officially carrying the flag for much longer

As monsoon rains fell on Islamabad's independence day celebrations, the Pakistani capital was awash with rumour.

Has he jumped? Will he be pushed?

After running this country for nearly a decade as military ruler, and then as president in and out of uniform, Pervez Musharraf is weaker than ever.

His political opponents have put their deep differences aside for long enough to gang up on him and finalise a charge sheet for impeachment.

'Graceful exit'

The president has always insisted he won't be impeached. But his supporters are deserting him in droves. A cartoon in The Nation newspaper has rats jumping from a sinking ship: the SS Mushi.

That seems to leave resignation, in one form or the other, as the only viable option.

Anti-Musharraf protester
Mr Musharrraf seems to have few friends left

Negotiations on a "graceful exit" have been held behind the scenes. If they're successful he could resign at any time. Or he could answer the charges brought against him in parliament first, in an effort to clear his name.

The most radical option would be to dissolve parliament and dismiss the government before he resigns.

Even for a political gambler like Pervez Musharraf, though, that would be a hard course of action to justify. His earnest calls for unity and reconciliation would sound rather hollow.

But "forgive and forget" doesn't seem to be on the agenda for Musharraf's political nemesis, Nawaz Sharif, who has rejected suggestions that the president should be given safe passage out of the country, or legal immunity.

Tough line

"Should safe passage be given to someone who has done this to Pakistan?" Mr Sharif asked a crowd in the eastern city of Lahore.

"He wants safe passage by breaking Pakistan's law. He wants safe passage by breaking Pakistan's Constitution. He is asking for safe passage by selling out Pakistan's sovereignty."

It's nothing personal, insists Mr Sharif, who was thrown out of office in 1999 when Pervez Musharraf carried out his military coup. No, of course it isn't.

Nawaz Sharif
Mr Sharif could complicate efforts to find a deal acceptable to all

Nawaz Sharif's tough line could complicate efforts to find a deal which would satisfy all parties.

And it's worth remembering that the allies in the coalition government agree on very little apart from their determination to get rid of the president.

If (or when) he goes, they could well fight like cat and dog. There's certainly no guarantee that Pakistan will become more stable without Pervez Musharraf.

And that is a big concern.

The man himself made his only public appearance in recent days at an independence day gala at the Presidential Palace here in Islamabad.

He saluted the crowd in commander-in-chief fashion, before sitting with his family to watch a cultural show.

He smoked a cigar (technically an illegal act in a government building - add that to the impeachment tally) and tapped his hand on his knee in time with the music.

Outside a small crowd of protestors chanted: "Go Musharraf, Go". But he couldn't hear them. And anyway, he still thinks he's done nothing wrong.

Fireworks

Twenty-four hours later, as the independence day celebrations drew to a close, fireworks and firecrackers competed for attention outside the Presidential Palace with thunder and lightning.

It was a dramatic setting.

Pakistani students paint National flags on the faces
Pakistan faces huge challenges

It feels like a controversial political career has entered its final act and the leading man is about to leave the stage.

But with or without President Musharraf, Pakistan faces huge challenges.

A Taleban insurgency is spreading from areas close to the Afghan border.

It's bringing bombs to Pakistan's cities; giving al-Qaeda a sanctuary to plan attacks around the world and helping militants fighting against international troops in Afghanistan.

The economy is also in desperate shape. Food and fuel prices are soaring, and the value of the rupee falling sharply.

On one point, President Musharraf is indisputably right. Stability is the need of the hour. But there will be more fireworks ahead.




SEE ALSO
Musharraf resignation deal denied
15 Aug 08 |  South Asia
Musharraf impeachment discussed
11 Aug 08 |  South Asia
Profile: President Pervez Musharraf
07 Aug 08 |  South Asia
Musharraf urges 'reconciliation'
14 Aug 08 |  South Asia
Impeachment hopes and fears
07 Aug 08 |  South Asia

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