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Anxiety kills joy at Musharraf's exit

Euphoria in Pakistan gives way to concerns about inflation, a rising militancy and a fractious coalition.

August 24, 2008|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — The honeymoon didn't last long.

For Rashid Shahbaz, a rail-thin day laborer, the surge of happiness he felt over President Pervez Musharraf's resignation last week leached away all too swiftly, replaced by the same sense of anxiety that has tugged at him for months.

"How can I feed my family? How can I give my children a future?" he said, falling into step with other worshipers heading to afternoon prayers at a run-down neighborhood mosque in the capital. "That's what I am asking God every day. Every single day."

Pakistan, with its propensity for lightning-fast changes in the national mood, has swung in recent days from euphoria over Musharraf's long-awaited exit to deep foreboding over whether its remaining leaders are up to the tasks of pulling the country out of an economic free fall and confronting a burgeoning Islamic insurgency.

Early signs were not auspicious. The coalition government, already paralyzed for months by infighting, fell to quarreling again within hours of Musharraf's resignation. Some fear the alliance of the two main parties will unravel altogether.

Only three days after the sudden exit of Musharraf, who was military chief for most of his nearly nine years in power, Pakistan's Taliban movement struck one its strongest blows yet at the military establishment, staging a spectacular attack on a huge munitions compound near the capital. Nearly 80 workers, almost all of them civilians, were killed in suicide blasts carefully timed to coincide with shift changes at the weapons complex.

Moreover, the Taliban threatened to reignite a campaign of suicide bombings that plagued urban areas across Pakistan last year, killing and maiming hundreds.

In big cities such as Lahore and Karachi, the sites of suicide bombings have become local landmarks, macabre reference points for mundane tasks such as providing directions.

"The restaurant is just down the street from the police post that was blown up," someone will say, or "His office is across from the courthouse -- you know, the one where that attack happened."

Amid the turmoil, economic indicators have marched steadily downward. With the inflation rate at 25%, prices for staples such as rice and bread have doubled or tripled in recent months.

High gasoline prices mean many people can barely afford to drive, or even buy a bus ticket to get to work.

"Sometimes people look like they want to cry when they are paying for their groceries," said shopkeeper Ali Mustafa, whose business is teetering because he has extended credit to so many of his longtime customers. "They are searching their handbags and their pockets for every single coin. I look away when this happens."

Amid the long political deadlock over Musharraf's political fate, once-robust stock prices slid so sharply that investors rioted last month outside the main Karachi exchange, which has lost almost a third of its value this year. The national currency, the rupee, has plunged to historic lows.

In the debilitating summer heat, frequent power cuts fray tempers and interrupt daily routines. Rolling blackouts afflict the entire country, including the once-orderly capital, which was largely shielded from such disruptions until this year. The unreliable electricity supply has created a new class of haves and have-nots: those who can afford home generators, and those who cannot and must swelter and suffer.

"My schoolwork is affected, because it is too hot and too dark to study inside my home," said Karim Iqbal, a shy and studious 17-year-old. "I sit out on the roof until the light fades too much for me to read anymore. I want to become educated, and better myself. But it is very hard."

Many analysts see the country's most pressing problems as inextricably linked: the fractious and disorganized government, the gloomy economic outlook and the emboldened Islamic insurgency.

"Unless the government appears to the outside world to be competent and stable, which it most certainly does not at the moment, foreign investment won't be coming back, and economic recovery will be very difficult," said Marie Lall, a South Asia analyst at the British think tank Chatham House.

"And a bad economy generates support for the insurgency -- even in Pakistan, where people on the whole really do not want to be ruled by Islamists," Lall said. "But the extremists are seen as the main alternative to the government, so in bad times, people turn to them."

The United States' ability to influence events in Pakistan is probably at its lowest ebb in a generation, according to analysts and even some U.S. officials.

Among Pakistanis, there is a strong sense of grievance against the Bush administration for its years of patronage of Musharraf. Although that support finally faded in the final months of his tenure, it continued long after his compatriots had decisively turned against him.

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