It's been a rough month for Pervez Musharraf.
Since returning to Pakistan on March 24 after several years of self-imposed exile, the former president has been disqualified from participating in the May 11 national election; arrested on multiple charges; and targeted by a car bomb that failed to detonate. His travails have garnered little sympathy from the masses. They've either ignored him (his homecoming rally attracted less than 2,000 people), or lashed out at him (a lawyer hurled a shoe at him during a court appearance).
Musharraf's life is in limbo. His political career is on hold (and, following a court decision on April 30 to ban him from elections for life, perhaps over altogether). He also can't leave his Islamabad estate (where, as of this writing, he is under house arrest) except for his visits to court-trips fraught with peril for one of Pakistan's most marked men.
Musharraf has long been aware of the legal problems and security threats he would face if he returned to Pakistan. So why would he give up the relative freedom and safety of Dubai and London to come home?
Some observers point to the deep influence of delusional advisors. Others say he wants to demonstrate his patriotism and loyalty to a nation he ingloriously abandoned. And still others suggest he simply isn't very smart.
Yet the best explanation is his outsize ego.
I won't soon forget the day back in July 2011, just weeks after U.S. Navy Seals apprehended Osama Bin Laden, when Musharraf gave a talk to a beyond-capacity crowd at the Wilson Center. He declared that he had few regrets about his time in power, and insisted that if he were to take power again, "I would not need to reinvent the wheel"-because what he had done while president had been successful.
This breathtaking assertion came from a man who launched media crackdowns, fired the chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court, declared a state of emergency, and eventually resigned after becoming the target of a lawyers-led anti-government movement described by some as Pakistan's Arab Spring. So controversial (and unpopular) were these actions that, for many Pakistanis, they overshadow the positive accomplishments that Musharraf made earlier in his rule-including economic growth and media liberalization.
With Pakistan now a fragile, civilian-led democracy, the former military strongman's hubris has apparently convinced him that he can reinvent himself as a very different kind of leader.
It's a persona I've seen him assume firsthand. After his talk at the Wilson Center, as security officers attempted to lead him out of the building, Musharraf mingled with the crowd. He shook hands, slapped backs, and laughed heartily as onlookers chanted "March 23, 2012! March 23, 2012!"-the date on which he was then promising (falsely, as it turned out) to return to Pakistan. It was a command performance for the former leader of an institution known for its contemptuous references to "bloody civilians."
In more recent weeks, Musharraf has gone to extraordinary lengths to come off as a man of the people. He live-tweeted his return to Pakistan, and photos posted on his various social media accounts show him lifting weights and playing with his German shepherd.
Yet even as Musharraf's new image distances him from the military, he continues to embrace that institution's ideologies-including the idea that he can rescue Pakistan from itself. In his very first remarks after returning home, Musharraf proclaimed he had come back to "save" Pakistan. When deployed as an army institutional narrative, this messiah mentality has been used to justify military rule. Yet when appropriated by individuals, it becomes a highly narcissistic claim to legitimacy (it's a tactic also employed by Imran Khan, who has vowed "to launch a jihad to save Pakistan").
Musharraf's bombast may seem ridiculous given his dim political prospects (the latter can be explained, in part, by his unpopular, dictatorial end-of-rule policies; his decision to establish a post-9/11 partnership with Washington, which makes many Pakistanis regard him as a "poodle" of the United States; and his weak and unorganized new political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League). Musharraf's bombast has also prompted some to claim that his decision to return betrays a lack of strategic thinking (the same deficiency seen in his decision nearly 15 years ago to launch an ill-fated military incursion into the Kargil district of Kashmir).
Yet in fact, Musharraf's return was well-thought-out-and, in the narrow context of electoral politics, perfectly rational and even quite reasonable.
His plan was to contest a parliamentary seat in Chitral, a district in the mountainous northern reaches of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province-one of the few pockets of the country where Musharraf enjoys considerable levels of popularity. (Few public opinion surveys have focused on Musharraf in recent years, but a poll released just the other day finds that about two-thirds of Pakistanis support his electoral disqualification.) Early in April, after his nomination papers were accepted in Chitral (he would be disqualified just days later), locals responded with a celebratory procession, and a local journalist reported that people were "ecstatic." Political analysts critical of Musharraf grudgingly acknowledged that other potential national assembly candidates from Chitral were, in deference to Musharraf, opting for provincial seats instead.
Musharraf's popularity in Chitral can be traced to his administration's construction of the Lowari Tunnel-a five-mile-long structure that protects locals from avalanches that buried thousands of people in past years. In the winter months, the tunnel enables isolated, snow-bound Chitralis to travel to other parts of Pakistan without having to depend on a dangerous and more circuitous route through Afghanistan. "I don't care what Musharraf did with anyone else," proclaimed one Chitrali last year, "but if I as Chitrali neglected his services for Chitral, I will never be forgiven in any court in this world."
One candidate running for the Chitral seat has claimed that he, not Musharraf, deserves credit for the tunnel. Yet other politicians-including a chief official with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the party led by Musharraf nemesis Nawaz Sharif that many expect to lead this year's polls-have rushed to Musharraf's defense, crediting him with constructing more than two-thirds of the tunnel during his rule.
In sum, Musharraf chose the only remotely realistic route back to politics-a parliamentary seat in a district where he commands modest levels of support. His vanity enabled him to push forward with this plan while blinding him to the legal problems that have long threatened to snuff out any hopes of a political comeback.
Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images