Tristan Mabry

is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University

The death of Benazir Bhutto triggered outbursts of pain and protest in Pakistan, but although President Pervez Musharraf declared three days of mourning, it is entirely misguided to believe that her assassination is being mourned by most Pakistanis. While Islamabad and Washington are quick to blame the Islamists, who almost certainly orchestrated the actual attack, some of the country's secular elites are celebrating her demise.

The dividing line between the mourners and the merry is an ethnic one. As the world's first Islamic republic threatens to implode (again), the most important political divisions to consider are not ideological - democracy vs. despotism, liberalism vs. Islamism - but cultural and linguistic.

Punjabis account for almost half of the country's population and control its most important institution: the military. Yet Bhutto was a Sindhi, a member of an ethnic minority that accounts for just 12 percent of Pakistan's 165 million people.

She was also a hero to a Sindhi separatist movement, a decades-old struggle for independence pursued by a people who see Pakistan as a prison. Under British colonial rule, the Sindhis were regional ministers of their own affairs. After partition in 1947, the Sindhis were marginalized by politically powerful migrants, the Mohajirs, who led the drive to split India as two "nations" divided by religion. The Mohajirs, who settled primarily in the capital of the province, Karachi, are now represented in Islamabad by one of their own: Musharraf.

Immediately after Bhutto died, it should come as no surprise that the most violent protests erupted in the streets of Sindh.

Because the Mohajir elite are both educated and secular, the return of Bhutto and her call for democracy should have been cause for cosmopolitan celebration. Yet she was generally loathed by Mohajirs. In Karachi, a popular comedian often played Bhutto in drag and made fun of her uncomfortable accent in Urdu. Rather than a symbol of civility, she was viewed as a chief of the hostile natives, the Sindhis.

In fact, this is not far from the truth. Bhutto's cousin Mumtaz Bhutto is the chairman of the separatist Sindhi National Front (SNF). In a meeting over tea and cookies at his well-guarded home in Karachi, Mumtaz Bhutto once told me the Sindhi separatists are inspired by the secession of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971. Just as Islamabad "did not read the signs" warning of what was about to happen in Dhaka, he believes the Musharraf regime is "totally oblivious to what is going on in Sindh."

The separatist sentiment in Sindh is not unique in Pakistan.

In the neighboring province of Balochistan, a resource-rich but desperately forbidding region, many of the five million ethnic Balochis support the Baloch Liberation Army, a separatist militia that sometimes bombs natural-gas pipelines and government offices.

The BLA's longtime leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, was killed last year when the Pakistan Air Force bombed his remote mountain hideaway. And last month, his successor, Balash Khan Marri, was shot and killed by an unknown assailant.

And in the wild, wild northwest, ethnic Pashtuns - cousins of the same people who formed the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan - battle their country's own army.

In short, aside from an observance of Islam, the Muslims of Pakistan have little else in common. The country's name offers the best illustration of its synthetic construction: Pakistan is an acronym composed of the titular provinces Punjab, Afghan (for the people of the wild northwest), Kashmir, Sindh, and Balochistan. Each of these provinces is dominated by separate peoples with distinct languages. The official language of Pakistan, Urdu, is the mother tongue of only 8 percent of its people, the Mohajirs.

All of this matters if free, fair and open elections are successfully conducted in Pakistan. The democratic process will strengthen political parties representing ethnic interests.

And while Islamist violence is clearly a present danger, the power of terrorism is political rather than military.

The outrage and civil unrest triggered by Bhutto's assassination will probably break the back of the Musharraf regime and force the military to openly select his successor. In the short term - and despite public calls by President Bush and other world leaders to hold elections in Pakistan - this is privately the most welcome outcome for the international community. When dealing with any country equipped with nuclear weapons, a nasty stability is usually better than an unstable democracy. But in the long view, Benazir Butto's bloody end is symptomatic of Pakistan's enduring birth defect: a state without a nation, a country cobbled together by decree.

E-mail Tristan Mabry at tjm76@georgetown.edu.