Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf defended his decision to hijack the nation's constitutional democracy this weekend, saying it was a response to extremist elements in the country. But the protesters hauled off by Pakistani police yesterday were lawyers in suits and ties, journalists and other proponents of the rule of law. The only extreme position on display was Mr. Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule. It was a desperate attempt to retain his shaky hold on power, and it could have serious implications for U.S.-Pakistan relations.
The Bush administration was uncharacteristically quick to denounce Mr. Musharraf's power grab and urge him to restore democratic rule. Some officials warned that Mr. Musharraf's move could jeopardize millions in U.S. aid, and it shouldn't be an idle threat.
Mr. Musharraf's dismissal of members of Pakistan's Supreme Court was an egregious assault on the rule of law and an obvious payback for the court's challenges to his bid to remain president for another five years, provided he gives up his role as head of the military.
The president's actions also undermined his contention that extremism is on the rise in Pakistan. How does his crackdown on democracy supporters help rout extremists such as the suicide bombers who killed hundreds at a rally for returning opposition leader Benazir Bhutto? A political arrangement between Mr. Musharraf and Ms. Bhutto to hasten democratic reforms seems irrelevant now.
The situation in Pakistan is troublesome for President Bush because of Mr. Musharraf's leading role in the war on terror. Since the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Musharraf has been Mr. Bush's proxy fighter in the battle against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the United States can't be seen as tolerating such blatant attacks on democracy. Mr. Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, must be made to understand that strong-arming the Pakistani people won't quell their understandable desire for a true democracy and the rights that accompany it, nor will it eliminate the danger extremists pose.