ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Suspending basic rights and sacking independent-minded judges may buy President Gen. Pervez Musharraf more time in power, but his assumption of emergency powers could ultimately destabilize Pakistan further and embolden Islamic militants.
Western allies will also find it increasingly awkward to support a military leader who twice seized power by force and has become a hate-figure to many at home.
"Pakistan may well have been pushed into a blind alley and its capacity to come out unscathed is seriously in doubt," said a commentary in Sunday's Dawn daily written by noted human rights lawyer I. A. Rehman, 77, who was detained by police later in the day.
Musharraf was due to hang up his military uniform this month and usher in a long-promised era of democracy. But, fearful that a defiant Supreme Court would spoil his plans to rule five more years as a civilian, he has resorted to dictatorial measures.
With authorities blocking independent TV networks, it was left to Pakistan's press to deliver a blistering indictment of Saturday's declaration of emergency, which many equated with martial law because it left the army chief effectively unchecked.
Musharraf sacked the Supreme Court's top judge and authorities quickly rounded up hundreds of the general's political rivals, lawyers, and even raided the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, where Rehman was picked up with more than 30 others.
Dubbing it "Gen. Musharraf's second coup," Dawn juxtaposed pictures of the U.S.-allied leader in his fatigues when he ousted an elected government in 1999 with images of him declaring the emergency on TV in civilian clothes on Saturday, just a little grayer around the temples.
Musharraf justified the move on the grounds that Islamic militancy had become a grave threat to Pakistan. Indeed, jihadists have seize control of swaths of northwestern Pakistan and launched dozens of deadly suicide attacks, mostly against security forces. Hundreds have died in the violence this year.
But much of the page-long emergency declaration focuses on the activism of the Supreme Court. It was accused of working at "cross purposes" with the executive and undermining its efforts to fight extremism, pushing for the release of dozens of Pakistani terror suspects held secretly by intelligence agencies.
Tellingly, Musharraf chose to act as the court was about to decide whether to validate his controversial Oct. 6 election victory — a win that opponents decried as unconstitutional. A close aide to Musharraf told The Associated Press that they had expected the judges to rule against him. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Commentator Shafqat Mahmood said the perception that the emergency had been declared to prolong his personal power would further sully the profile of the military leader, whose popularity has sunk since his botched attempt to fire the independent-minded chief justice in March — a mission finally accomplished Saturday.
"For the last six months, Musharraf has been a very hated figure in the country. Now he has pariah status. It is so obvious to the people that there is no principal involved here," Mahmood said.
Joseph Biden, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the Bush administration "to move from a Musharraf policy to a Pakistan policy."
"President Bush should personally make clear to Gen. Musharraf the risks to U.S.-Pakistani relations if he does not restore the constitution, permit free and fair elections and take off his uniform as promised," Biden said in a statement.
Yet it remained doubtful that the U.S. and other Western nations — which last week urged Musharraf to avoid authoritarian measures — would abandon the urbane general who made Pakistan a valued ally in the fight against al-Qaida and Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Bush administration said it was deeply disturbed by the emergency and urged a swift return to democracy. But the Pentagon said Musharraf's declaration does not affect U.S. military support of Pakistan, suggesting to many here it will be business as usual.
Washington has provided billions of dollars in military and economic assistance since it suspended sanctions on military aid to Islamabad after 9/11.
"Those people who claim to be champions of democracy appear ready to let this go as they think he's the only one who can deliver in the war on terror," Mahmood said.
But further alienating Pakistanis already deeply resentful of the high-handed attitude of their rulers and a war on militants seen as fought at the behest of the Americans will make that job harder, and militants could exploit the political crisis to sow more discontent.
"We should also expect a surge in terrorist activities and bomb blasts by Taliban and al-Qaida elements to take advantage of the situation," the editor of the liberal Daily Times newspaper, Najam Sethi, wrote.
Musharraf, who has been targeted at least three times by militant assassins, may also face growing unease in the ranks of an army — the main source of his power — whose own standing is tarnished along with that of its chief.
"The army is fighting on two fronts: the war against terrorism, which it is struggling with, and a losing battle for its own image," said analyst Ikram Sehgal. "The only way Musharraf is going to redeem himself, especially with the Pakistan army, is that having got the Supreme Court out of the way, he must take off his uniform then announce in the near future free and fair elections."
A parliamentary vote is due in January but that schedule was in doubt, although Musharraf said Saturday he was still committed to a full transition to democracy. Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim conceded Sunday that, for the moment, the elections were on the "backburner."
Elections or not, the most dogged opponents of military rule see only one solution.
"We believe that Musharraf has to be taken out of the equation and a government of national reconciliation put in place," Asma Jehangir, another prominent rights activist, wrote by e-mail from house arrest in Lahore.
"It must be backed by the military. Short of this there are no realistic solutions."