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History shows Pakistan's coups are self-defeating

Rumours of a coup in Pakistan are a reminder of Pakistan's fractious history and the unnecessary conflict caused by the military's direct role in politics.

When Pervez Musharraf stepped down as president of Pakistan in 2008, it seemed that the country had turned a corner. Most Pakistanis remained deeply sceptical of the civilian government and politicians across the spectrum, but there was a sense of a lesson learnt. The army, revered for its role as a pillar of stability, was finally consigned to the barracks.

Almost four years on, rumours of another coup pervade every level of society except, to be fair, the military itself. On Friday, Pakistan's army chief General Ahfaq Kayani denied prospects of a coup. Then again, so did Gen Musharraf shortly before he took power in 2001, but Gen Kayani is considered to be cut from a different cloth.

Whatever his intentions are, however, there is little doubt that the civilian government is embroiled in a dangerous confrontation with the military. The fiasco of "memo-gate", when the former ambassador to the US was implicated in an allegedly treasonous communiqué to the Pentagon, still hangs over this government. Last week, Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani warned about a "state within the state".

That might seem to be an obscure reference, but it was as close as the civilian government is likely to get to blaming the military explicitly in public. Despite Gen Kayani's disavowals, it could be argued that Mr Gilani's public statements could force the hand of the army.

A coup would be a disaster for all sides concerned. Pakistan has enough experience with coups to understand this. Under Gen Musharraf, who took power with the justification of national security, Pakistan's situation steadily worsened, to the degree that terrorist bombings in major cities like Peshawar and Islamabad are now a weekly occurrence.

Gen Musharraf's term was also distinguished by his battles with Iftikar Chaudhry, the chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court (who on Friday promised to defend the constitution in the event of another coup). That battle, which ended in Gen Musharraf's resignation, paralysed government at a time when it should have been focused on the growing threat in the tribal areas and the disintegration of security in the cities.

There is no doubt that the people of Pakistan have grown tired of their politicians' failings and many perceive the government to be weak. Mr Gilani's political adversaries have called for early elections, and indeed the next government should be decided at the ballot box. It reflects poorly on the country's political maturity that it is Gen Kayani who will decide if that happens.

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