Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, bowed to massive pressure and quit today, ahead of impeachment proceedings due to start this week.
Musharraf came on live on national television, just after 1 pm local time, in an address that lasted for over an hour. As he was finishing, his voice trembled and the former army strongman appeared to have tears in his eyes, putting an end to almost nine years in power.
"If I was doing this just for myself, I might have chosen a different course but I put Pakistan first, as always," said the president, wearing a Western suit and tie but speaking in the national language Urdu.
It is likely that Musharraf stepped down as a part of a Western-mediated deal between the president and the coalition government: that he resigns and in return all charges will be dropped. Since 9/11, he has been a crucial anti-terror ally for Washington. It was humiliating, nevertheless, for the ex-army chief to have to submit to the very politicians he hated. But he admitted he was left with no choice.
"Even if I beat this impeachment, relations between the presidency and the government can never be fixed. Pillars of the state – parliament and the judiciary – would be harmed and, God forbid, the army might have been dragged in," he said, adding that he wanted the people to be his judge.
"No 'charge sheet' can stand against me because I never did anything for myself. Whatever I did, I put Pakistan first."
But the president, who was an almost absolute ruler until he stepped down as army chief in November last year and held elections in February 2008, did not leave without first launching into an impassioned and lengthy defense of his record. He said the allegations made against him were "lies".
He laid the blame for Pakistan's current economic crisis squarely on the current government, saying that, just eight months ago, the economy was booming and Pakistan was regarded as one of the next great emerging market success stories.
"When I took over, nine years ago, this country was on the verge of being declared a terrorist state, on the verge of becoming a failed state," said Musharraf. "The challenges of the last nine years have been greater than any in Pakistan's history, yet have I met those challenges."
Most members of the coalition government did not want to go through the trauma of impeachment proceedings, hoping that the threat of prosecution would be enough to convince the president to go. However, Musharraf held out for almost two weeks after the announcement that the government had decided to impeach him. His resignation came just a couple of hours ahead of the scheduled start of formal parliamentary proceedings against him.
Reza Rabbani, a leading member of the Pakistan People's Party, one of the two big parties in the coalition, said: "This is the first time in Pakistan's political history where you have the people winning against establishment institutions."
Pakistan's army, which has ruled the country for more than half its tumultuous history, quietly told Musharraf that it would not back him if he decided to fight the impeachment, stripping him of the only backing that might have saved him. Similarly, close allies — the U.S., Britain and Saudi Arabia — also indicated to the president that it was time to go. However, those international allies are thought to have put pressure on the Pakistani government to let him resign before impeachment.
Details of the deal that led to Musharraf's resignation were not immediately available. Back-channel negotiations between the coalition government and Musharraf had centered on Musarraf's desire to remain in Pakistan and be granted immunity from prosecution. The government was reluctant to grant those requests.
But both sides wanted to avoid a contentious impeachment battle that could have unsettled the military and the U.S.-backed war on terror.
There is speculation that key aspects of Musharraf's cooperation with the United States would have been aired in any impeachment hearings, including details of the "disappearance" of since 9/11 of hundreds of Pakistanis, some into U.S. custody, and the sanctioning of American missile strikes against suspected militant camps in Pakistan's tribal areas. The Pakistan army raid on Islamabad's radical Red Mosque last year, which resulted in around 100 deaths, might also have featured in any Musharraf trial.
"Nobody wants the Pandora's Box opened up," said Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times, the Pakistani newspaper. "The issue of impeachment is really a non-starter."
It had been thought that, given Musharraf's close partnership with Washington, he might live in the United States if he is forced into exile. However, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while noting that "President Musharraf has been a good ally," said Sunday that Washington was not considering granting him asylum.
"That's not an issue on the table, and I just want to keep our focus on what we must do with the democratic government of Pakistan," Rice told Fox News.
That leaves a Middle Eastern ally of Pakistan, such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, as the most likely refuge for Musharraf, should he leave Pakistan.
Musharraf seized power in October 1999, when he staged a coup that deposed then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Now back in government, as part of the coalition, Mr Sharif was the prime mover behind the impeachment, looking for revenge, which finally came today.
Washington will be hoping that with the president gone, there can be some political stability in Pakistan, so that the government will tackle the deep-seated problems of poverty and extremism.