Better late than never! This is the phrase that comes to mind with the news that Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has agreed to shed his military uniform and act as a civilian head of state. Musharraf had promised to make the move as far back as 2004 and his failure to do so had been a key theme in his critics' campaign against his rule.
Unable to offer a credible alternative, some of those critics have pretended that Musharraf's uniform was the central question of Pakistani politics.
The problem, however, is not that of Musharraf's uniform.
The general's decision to don civilian clothes will simply transform another wearer of uniform, this time the new chief General Ashfaq Kayani, into a "strongman".
The reasons for the army's special place in Pakistani politics are not hard to fathom. It is the only national institution that cuts across ethnic and regional barriers and offers Pakistanis from all sorts of backgrounds a place on the social ladder. Unlike the traditional political parties that are ultimately regional in their basic constituencies, the army appeals to all the four provinces that make up the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. More importantly, perhaps, the army, although taking pride in its role as the "Defender of The Faith", nurtures a basically secular nationalist ideology based on a vision of Pakistan as a distinct nation rather than a mere chunk of a universal ummah.
Despite the undoubted attachment of most Pakistanis to some form of electoral politics, Pakistan remains a nation built around an army. Paradoxically, even those Pakistanis who most talk of democracy often look to the army as potential saviour, a kind of deus ex machina that, at crucial moments, could intervene to bring the nation out of an impasse.
In just over half a century of existence as a state, Pakistan has experienced four military coups every one of which was initially welcomed by a majority of the people.
By shedding his uniform, Musharraf has thrown the ball back to the political leaders, especially the two former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Muslim League leader Mian Nawaz Sharif. For the past three weeks, both have been threatening a boycott of the general elections scheduled for January.
However, my guess is that both will take part. For the past eight years, which they spent in exile, both were campaigning against a Musharraf decision to bar them from national politics for a decade. Now that, thanks to a combination of circumstances beyond their control, they no longer face such a ban they would be foolish, if not politically suicidal, to shun the polls.
There is no doubt that the PPP and the Muslim League have managed to retain parts of their respective constituencies especially in Sind and Punjab. But eight years is a long time in politics and there is every possibility that Pakistan may have moved beyond both former prime ministers. To seek high office, Bhutto and Sharif must acquire a new legitimacy. And that can only come through elections. Thus, to move Pakistan beyond the current dangerous phase, it is important that January's elections be held with the widest participation and under the least controversial conditions possible.
Bhutto and Sharif owe it to their own people to sheath the sword of boycott. For his part, Musharraf should release the last few remaining political prisoners taken at the start of the state of emergency, and to lift the ban on one or two private new outlets still blacked out.
Pakistan today faces what is perhaps the strongest existential threat it has experienced ever since its inception in 1947. The terrorists operating in Swat cannot seize power in Islamabad. But they can exhaust the army in a seemingly endless war, thus encouraging the revival of other fissiparous forces, especially in the vast desert of Baluchistan.
A weakened army would also be unable to provide a minimum of law and order in the major cities, notably Karachi, where ‘sleeper' terrorist cells have mushroomed for years.
Musharraf's key word is "security" while Bhutto and Sharif prefer "freedom". But the two concepts are interdependent. There can be no freedom without security. The failure of Pakistan's leaders to understand that banal truism has been at the root of the nation's chequered experience over the past half a century.
Nawaz Sharif is right in saying that not everyone designated
as terrorist by the global media should be regarded as such. At the same time Sharif should not offer a fig leaf to radical elements whose cynical appeal to religious sentiments draws the ignorant into the antechambers of terror.
For her part, Ms Bhutto must remember that those who tried to kill her in Karachi a few weeks ago are the same people who have tried to assassinate Musharraf four times.
Whether they like it or not, Musharraf, Sharif ad Bhutto are today in the same boat, facing the same sea storms.
Pakistan's forthcoming election has suddenly assumed a geo-strategic importance beyond that country's actual importance. The prospect of a nuclear-armed state collapsing into chaos is one that few would contemplate with relish.
This election could, and should, produce a new national coalition that enjoys popular legitimacy and a clear mandate to pursue the war against terrorists to ultimate victory. What Pakistan needs is a united front against terror, and a new government that can offer an alternative to both military rule and Taliban-style theocracy.
Now that all political parties and leaders are allowed to contest the elections, it would be foolish to turn the coming elections into an occasion for settling past scores. Pakistan needs a future-oriented election campaign, one capable of offering the people hope based on reality. Musharraf, Bhutto and Sharif form an informal triumvirate that can and must play a crucial role at this particular moment in Pakistan's history.
This may be their last chance to make an historic contribution to their nation's future. If they fail, they will all go down together. None can succeed by destroying the others. Holding clean and credible elections could strengthen all three in their respective positions.
The outside world should also offer a helping hand. The Commonwealth, having had fun with gesture politics by suspending Pakistan's membership, should offer help in monitoring the elections along with the European Union, the United States and possibly even the United Nations.
The message of Pakistan's leaders should be unity in diversity, unity against terror and diversity in competing visions for the nation's future. In January one of the biggest battles in the current global war on terror will be fought in Pakistan. The whole world will be watching.