By Richard Engel, NBC News correspondent
With her white veil, bejeweled blouses, flawless English and flair for drama and theatrical timing, Benazir Bhutto has painted herself as lady liberty, a lone woman willing to risk all and stand up to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and his emergency rule.
Bhutto says she is the one who can stop Musharraf and his crackdown, which has seen several thousand lawyers, students and political activists arrested. Already, observers are comparing the situation in Pakistan to September’s uprising in Myanmar, where monks and opposition leader (and Nobel Peace Prize-winner) Aung San Suu Kyi rallied against the military junta.
But Pakistan is not Myanmar, and Bhutto is no Aung San Suu Kyi.
Bhutto is a flawed hero. She has been accused – she says for political reasons – of massive corruption while serving twice as prime minister, first in the late 1980s and later in the mid-1990s. Bhutto stands accused of stealing roughly $1.5 billion, mostly in the form of kickbacks on government contracts.
Bhutto and Musharraf also have a common interest in keeping the courts here weak. Despite her rhetoric against the Pakistani president, it was Musharraf who helped to have Bhutto’s corruption charges put on hold when he allowed her to return to Pakistan from exile last month.
While the Harvard- and Oxford-educated Bhutto is the leading opposition politician in Pakistan, she is still more popular in the West than at home. Bhutto’s regime is remembered for having one of the worst human rights records in Pakistan’s history, and her government did not allow the media freedoms she criticizes Musharraf for crushing.
Bhutto could also still face corruption cases in Britain, Spain and Switzerland.
Today, the New York Times let some of the air out of the Bhutto bubble in an article headlined "Bhutto’s Persona Raises Distrust, as Well as Hope."
"But her record in power, and the dance of veils she has deftly performed since her return – one moment standing up to General Musharraf, then next seeming to accommodate him, and never quite revealing her actual intentions – has stirred as much distrust as hope among Pakistanis," the Times piece said.
Bitter rivalry for power
Musharraf is certainly no angel. On Sunday, he gave what can only be described as a bizarre rationale for his emergency rule. In a press conference at his palatial office, Musharraf said the emergency law – which prevents public rallies and makes insulting the president a crime – actually helps democracy. Without it, Musharraf said, terrorists, rogue judges and "agitators" would destroy Pakistan’s democracy.
When pressed by foreign reporters – many local journalists boycotted the press conference – Musharraf said, "It is the emergency rule which reinforces the hands to control all this and keep it in check. And I think it is quite the opposite that you are saying, it will ensure absolutely fair and transparent elections."
Musharraf’s argument was weak, but he had to speak. For the last week, Musharraf has seen Bhutto stealing all the limelight, while he is under intensifying international criticism.
The truth seems to be that there are no good guys here, but only a bitter rivalry over power.