ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Pervez Musharraf promised yesterday to lift his emergency decree by Dec. 16, but opponents expressed skepticism that he would fully roll back the repressive measures he imposed nearly a month ago.
The pledge came hours into Musharraf's tenure as a strictly civilian leader, which he touted as proof of his commitment to democracy. Taking the oath of office for a new five-year presidential term in the morning, the former general defended his decision to declare emergency rule and chided the West for "unrealistic" expectations about the nature of democracy in Pakistan.
Until now Musharraf, considered a close U.S. ally, had resisted demands by the Bush administration and other Western governments to set a firm date for ending the state of emergency, which is akin to martial law.
After the Nov. 3 declaration, Musharraf used his sweeping new powers to crack down hard on political opponents. Thousands of opposition party workers, lawyers and human rights activists were arrested; senior judges were fired; and tight media restrictions were imposed.
Some of those measures have been eased, but Musharraf's critics say that unless the constitution is restored and fired judges given their jobs back, lifting the state of emergency will be a meaningless gesture.
"No one believes he will do these things," said Hajira Sattar, a teacher and political activist who was jailed for a week under the emergency declaration. "And if he does not, then we are still under the thumb of a leader who now pretends to be a democrat."
The country's two principal opposition leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, have demanded the reinstatement of fired Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who is under house arrest. Musharraf has ruled out reinstatement.
It was Chaudhry's replacement, Musharraf loyalist Abdul Hameed Dogar, who administered the oath of office yesterday. Speaking to assembled dignitaries, Musharraf declared the occasion "a milestone in the transition of Pakistan to the complete essence of democracy."
Later, in a televised address to the nation, the Pakistani leader promised that the emergency rule would end more than three weeks before parliamentary elections, set for Jan. 8.
Bhutto and Sharif, together with other opposition figures, have said it would be impossible to campaign while the emergency decree was in effect.
"I am fully determined that the emergency will be lifted on Dec. 16," said Musharraf, speaking in even tones and looking straight into the camera. "God willing, the election will be held ... in a free and transparent fashion."
Bhutto and Sharif have said they would not serve in government while Musharraf is head of state. This month he twice placed Bhutto under house arrest, and he deported Sharif in September on the former prime minister's first attempt to return after eight years in exile.
In an apparent effort to ease the enmity with his main rivals for power, Musharraf expressed hopes for a "conciliatory, civilized democratic political environment in the future."
The opposition leaders have said they are considering a boycott of the January election, but most analysts believe neither would sit out the vote for fear of giving the other a political edge.
As he had for his inauguration, Musharraf wore a formal black tunic for his televised speech. Until he stepped down as military chief, he often delivered speeches in an army uniform.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.