Pakistani President Asif Zardari
On Tuesday, December 6, 2011, President Asif Zardari left Pakistan for treatment at a hospital in Dubai following the reported development of a heart condition the previous night. Given the recent volatility of the political situation in Pakistan, speculative reports quickly emerged on social networking sites and in the Pakistani and international media of a creeping military coup in Pakistan.
December 6 was a public holiday in Pakistan, the 10th of the Islamic month of Muharram, when Muslims – mostly Shi'ites – mark the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. Most Pakistani newspapers were not published on December 7, the day after Zardari's departure for Dubai.
On December 7, Dubai ruler Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashed Al-Maktoum visited Zardari in the hospital. Sheikh Muhammad, who also the UAE vice president and prime minister, wished President Zardari a "speedy recovery," according to the official WAM news agency, which gave no further details about the Pakistani president's condition.
The civilian government led by Zardari and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has been under near-fatal pressure from the Pakistani military and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) following the recent Memogate, a controversy over the possibility that Zardari and Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani were behind a secret memo delivered to U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen this summer seeking his intervention to prevent a military coup in Pakistan. Ambassador Haqqani had been forced to quit over the issue.
Contradictory Reports over Zardari's Movements and Health
According to a report on the website of the Urdu-language daily Roznama Jang, presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said that Zardari was taken to hospital, presumably in Islamabad, following a "heart discomfort" and was treated there. Babar further clarified that the president had walked by himself to the hospital from the presidential residence, and also had walked to his departure for Dubai, and added that he is "healthy" and that there was no truth to media reports referring to a brain hemorrhage.
Mian Muneer Hans, a Dubai-based member of Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), said that the president landed in Dubai around 7:30 pm on December 6, adding: "He walked to his car in the airport and was not in any ambulance." Mian Muneer Hans said that Zardari, who was accompanied by his doctor and Pakistani Petroleum Minister Asim Hussain, was taken straight to the American Hospital in Dubai.
There was also speculation in the Pakistani media as to whether President Zardari had rebuffed Pakistani Army doctors out of a wish to seek independent medical treatment. A Pakistani website noted: "In Islamabad, some papers have reported that before Zardari left Pakistan, the Pakistani Army insisted that Zardari be examined by their own physicians, and that the Army doctors determined that Zardari was fine and did not need to leave the country for medical reasons. Zardari's spokesman has denied that he met with the Army doctors."
During the rapid spread of rumors on December 6, conflicting official Pakistani statements added to popular confusion over the facts regarding Zardari's health. The first media reports originating from the civilian government sources said that Zardari had gone for medical treatment and to meet family members in Dubai. Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar was quoted in another media report as saying: "Zardari on Tuesday left for Dubai on a private visit to meet his children and to undergo some medical tests…. Zardari was accompanied by his physicians and limited personal staff."
However, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who along with his father co-chairs the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), was seen on Pakistani television channels meeting with Prime Minister Gilani in Islamabad. According to the website of The News daily, "Bilawal discussed the current political situation with PM Gilani and President Zardari's health." The same website also quoted Bilawal Bhutto Zardari as saying that the president went to Dubai "at the insistence of his children."
The Pakistani president is in a tricky situation, in which his alleged good health adds to rumors about recent pressures by the Pakistan Army on the civilian government, notably after the Memogate scandal, forcing him to leave for Dubai. However, if he actually is ill, there has been no factual clarification from the government; nor has the Dubai hospital come forth to stop the rumors. Coincidentally, Pakistani Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan, who often speaks the mind of the civilian government, was injured in a car crash on December 7 – possibly unconnected to the Zardari health issue. According to a report, doctors in Dubai "are yet to determine whether the president's condition was due to an adverse reaction to the medication he was taking or a development related to his pre-existing cardiac condition."
A statement from Prime Minister Gilani's media office today said that "the president went to Dubai following symptoms related to his pre-existing heart condition… The president will remain under observation and return to resume his normal functions as advised by the doctors."
Amid Rumors Of Ill Health, Pakistani Opposition Leader Demands Removal of Zardari Government
Soon after Zardari left for Dubai, the U.S. media raised a question mark concerning the continuity of the civilian government. A blog on the website of the influential Foreign Policy magazine, to which most of speculative Pakistani media reports referred, published a blog titled "President Zardari suddenly leaves Pakistan – is he on the way out?"
The blog quoted "a former U.S. government official" with access to the White House as saying that when President Barack Obama spoke with Zardari to convey his condolences over the weekend regarding the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in the November 26 NATO raid, the Pakistani president was "incoherent." According to Foreign Policy, the former U.S. official said that "the noose was getting tighter – it was only a matter of time" before President Zardari could be forced out by resigning from Dubai on account of "ill health."
However, Pakistani Minister Mustafa Khokhar has denied speculative reports that President Zardari will resign, stating: "He had a minor heart attack on Tuesday. He flew to Dubai where he had an angioplasty. He's in good health now…. There's no question of any resignation."
Following the Memogate scandal and the November 26 killing of Pakistani soldiers in a NATO raid, the civilian government has been under pressure from the Pakistani military and the ISI. It was speculated that President Zardari, at whose behest Ambassador Husain Haqqani allegedly got the memo delivered to Admiral Mike Mullen through the machinations of controversial U.S.-Pakistani businessman Mansoor Ijaz, might be forced to resign, much like Haqqani. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has set up a commission to investigate the Memogate scandal.
In view of the Supreme Court probe, President Zardari had called for a joint parliamentary session immediately after Muharram to discuss the Memogate issue. However, his reported health problem has put the session on hold. On December 7, Pakistan's television channel Samaa reported that in Islamabad Bilawal Bhutto Zardari held a meeting of top politicians, including Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani; at the meeting, the recent NATO raid and other issues were discussed, and it was also decided to postpone the joint parliamentary session on the Memogate controversy.
Adding to the difficulties of the civilian government, Pakistan's main opposition leader and former two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif demanded that removal of the Zardari government is "necessary" to protect the country's "sovereignty." Speaking within hours of Zardari's departure, Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party has recently not been on good terms with the Pakistani military, said that the "failed and self-directed policies of sitting rulers have led the country to the verge of destruction, and the departure of the PPP-led allied government is vital to protect the country's sovereignty and stability."
The fast-spreading rumors in Pakistan gain strength because of the unique situation in Pakistan, especially with regard to the Pakistani military's near-total control on foreign policy-making, which has isolated the civilian government. Commenting on the reason behind the mushrooming rumors regarding a likely military coup, Badar Alam, editor of Herald magazine, said that there is a perception that the civilian government is on its last legs, adding: "Look at what has happened in the last two months. The memo scandal, last month's NATO border attack, corruption cases against the government in the Supreme Court, the rallies by the opposition in the streets, and reports of pressure within the ruling party. All these create an atmosphere of uncertainty…
"I don't know who is behind the rumors. But they definitely weaken the government further. It creates an image of instability in the country and gives the impression that anything can happen at any time."
* Tufail Ahmad is Director of the MEMRI South Asia Studies Project (www.memri.org/sasp)