In 1961 I went to Spain to visit my godfather, Count Ilyas Toptani, who had married the Duchess of Valencia. This fierce, regal woman was a leader of the Carlists, Spain's royalist party.
She and fellow Carlists had attempted a coup against Spain's dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco. They seized Madrid airport, and waited for Spain's exiled king, Don Juan, to fly in from Portugal. But Don Juan got cold feet and returned to Lisbon, claiming bad weather.
The Duchess grabbed the air controller's microphone, Count Toptani told me, and furiously yelled at the king, "Your majesty, a king should die for his country, not a country for its king. You have no cojones!" She was soon imprisoned.
I mention this piquant story because today another military ruler, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, seems prepared to see his nation destroyed rather than lose his grip on power.
Convulsed by riots
Pakistan has been convulsed for months by riots and demonstrations calling for the ouster of Musharraf and his cronies. Open opposition to Musharraf's dictatorship was sparked by his firing of Pakistan's courageous Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was blocking the president's efforts to get himself re-elected in violation of the constitution.
Pakistanis are fed up with Musharraf's war against his own people in the "autonomous" tribal territories and Baluchistan in order to please his patrons in Washington.
There is widespread anger against Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, for bowing to U.S. pressure and abandoning Pakistan's strategic interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir and turning Pakistan into a base for U.S. military operations against Afghanistan.
Hailed by Washington as a "democratic statesman," Musharraf has arrested, jailed, and tortured thousands of people without trial, rigged elections, bribed legislators and courts, and replacing the army and intelligence service's most capable, patriotic officers, with yes-men. Now, Musharraf's men are intimidating Pakistan's free press.
What an irony that while Washington claims to be waging war in Afghanistan to bring democracy, it is upholding Pakistan's military dictatorship.
Some Pakistani critics keep reminding me of my past support and admiration for former military ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq. True enough. I knew Zia fairly well.
After interviewing Musharraf in 1999, I said to myself, "Musharraf, you are no Zia!" President Zia was a true Pakistani patriot and friend of America who prevented a Soviet invasion of Pakistan, won the war in Afghanistan, and advanced his nation's strategic interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. He was courageous, tough as steel, and refused to be intimidated by anyone.
Musharraf outraged his countrymen by obsequiously kow-towing to foreign demands while neglecting Pakistan's needs. Turning Pakistan into Washington's sepoy (native soldier) in exchange for billions in overt and secret aid has shamed many Pakistanis and further enflamed anti-western groups in this important nation of 162.5 million.
Now, thanks in part to Musharraf's wrongheaded policies over Afghanistan, the conflict there is starting to lap across Pakistan's Northwest Frontier. Pakistan is facing one of the gravest national crises since its creation in 1947 as a beacon of honest, democratic government for the Muslim World.
Sixty years later, Pakistan has become a poster child for self-serving, undemocratic government.
The Bush administration keeps patting Musharraf on the back as unrest worsens and Pakistan heads toward a potential explosion that could destabilize the entire region and leave American, British and Canadian forces in Afghanistan cut off and vulnerable. The west cannot afford to let Pakistan melt down.
Quickly restoring democratic government is the obvious answer. Pakistan's banned opposition leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, must be allowed to return and wage free elections. Washington needs to press Musharraf to retire as armed forces chief and run for office as a democratic politician.
Time is fast running out. A nuclear-armed Pakistan facing regional, tribal and ethnic unrest or conflict is a hugely dangerous threat demanding urgent action.
Pakistan must not be sacrificed for the sake of its leader.
© 2007 The Toronto Sun