Memogate Brings Pakistan to the Edge

'It’s political brinkmanship at the highest level,' says a former general about the nation’s latest constitutional crisis. 'No one seems to be backing down. It’s bad for Pakistan.'

01.16.12 6:38 PM ET

Pakistan is sinking deeper into its political morass as the economy teeters and security deteriorates. It was sucked down further today when the Supreme Court ordered the embattled government’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to appear before it on Thursday to show why he should not be held in contempt of court for refusing for two years to obey a court order requiring him to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari and many other political allies. An eventual contempt ruling could disqualify him from holding office and could theoretically topple his government. “If the court announces a conviction, that could be sufficient to disqualify him to hold a seat in Parliament,” says lawyer Ahtar Minallah, who argues cases before the Supreme Court. “The prime minister seems blatantly determined to violate the decision, knowing full well the consequences.”

That outcome would be welcomed by the forces that are arrayed against Gilani and his political boss, President Zardari: not only the judiciary, but also the powerful military as well as a revitalized political opposition. “They all want to see the back of this government,” says retired Pakistani Army Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, who’s now a political analyst. But Zardari and Gilani don’t seem to be in a mood for compromise. Nor are their adversaries. “It’s political brinkmanship at the highest level,” adds Masood. “No one seems to be backing down. It’s bad for Pakistan.”

Zardari and Gilani have been asking for trouble, and now they have it. Two years ago the Supreme Court overturned a controversial amnesty agreement that had dropped corruption charges against Zardari and hundreds of other allied politicians. It ordered the government to reopen the cases, particularly a money-laundering case in Switzerland against Zardari, who was popularly known while he was in the government of his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, as “Mr. 10 Percent” for his sticky fingers with government contracts. The 2009 court ruling tasked the government with writing a letter to the Swiss authorities, asking them to revive the court action. The Pakistani government has steadfastly refused, claiming Zardari’s immunity as president. Some lawyers say the court has been more than lenient given the government’s dilatory tactics. “The observance of due process of law by the court was exemplary in this case,” says lawyer Minallah. “Such defiance in this particular matter is unfortunate.”

Today’s high-court decision is only one of the challenges facing the beleaguered government. The court is also investigating what the Pakistani press has dubbed “Memogate”: an anonymous memorandum that was reportedly delivered last May to Adm. Mike Mullen, who was then the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The memo, which the popular media has labeled “treasonous,” asked for U.S. help to rein in Pakistani generals who were said to be planning another coup against a democratically elected government in the wake of the U.S. commando raid deep inside Pakistan that took out Osama bin Laden, a unilateral action that had deeply embarrassed the military. In return, the memo's author promised that the government would provide “carte blanche” to U.S. forces to operate against militants inside Pakistan. Mansour Ijaz, the American businessman of Pakistani origin who first revealed the existence of the memo, claims the government was behind it and had asked him to deliver it to Mullen. The admiral dismissed the memo as not being credible. The government staunchly denies the charge that it had anything to do with the missive. But the military sees the memo as a direct attack on it and its firm control of national-security policy, and it wants those behind the letter brought to book.

Gilani has, perhaps courageously, perhaps foolhardily, fought back against the military, accusing it of being a “state within a state” and denouncing as “unconstitutional” the depositions that the Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and the Inter-Services Intelligence director-general, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, submitted to the court to back up their belief that the government was behind the memo. The generals’ rejoinder to Gilani was swift and menacing, warning of “potentially grievous consequences for the country.”

Zardari and Gilani seem to be standing firm. Senior members of their ruling Pakistan Peoples Party are already saying they are ready to nominate a new prime minister if necessary. Gilani is said to be mentally prepared to resign if that could ease the pressure from the court and the Army on the government. With a new man in office, their reasoning goes, the government could plead that it needs more time for compliance with the court’s decision.

But such tactics seem counterproductive and unnecessary. At this stage all the court is really asking is that the government write a letter to the Swiss asking that the case against Zardari be reopened. “They are jeopardizing the entire system just to resist writing that one letter,” says lawyer Minallah. “If they wrote the letter nothing would happen, as far as I can see,” says General Masood. Swiss prosecutors are already on the record saying the case in their view is closed. “I think the one who will have to cede the most in practical terms will be Gilani by sending the letter to the Swiss courts,” adds Masood. But such an about-face by the stubborn government seems unlikely.

The only good news in this depressing landscape of power struggles, inflation, electricity and natural-gas shortages, and resurgent terrorism is that the possibility of a military coup at this point seems remote. “The only good point is that none of the [antigovernment] forces would want the democratic architecture to be toppled,” says Masood. “The military has no love for democracy. It’s simply that the generals don’t want the responsibility of toppling the government and then picking up the resulting responsibility of dealing with the economic mess.”