The crackdown on the lawyers protest is another sign of a regime on the brink of collapse, says Zubeida Mustafa
Even before the lawyers’ ‘long march’ in Pakistan got off the ground on Thursday, the crackdown had begun. A century-old colonial law was used to ban public rallies and as a preemptive measure the police began picking up political workers all over the country. When the lawyers assembled in different cities to head towards the capital Islamabad, hundreds had been arrested. Thus the tone was set for the massive confrontation that was expected to mark what the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif termed as a defining moment in Pakistan’s history.
The government’s knee-jerk reaction to the long march appeared to be unwarranted. The lawyers remained entirely peaceful and no violence or act of hooliganism was witnessed anywhere. In fact if force was used by anyone, it was the baton-swinging police who acted without any provocation.
The lawyers have been protesting since 2007, when Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was summarily dismissed by the then president, General Pervez Musharraf. The lawyers are demanding the restoration of an independent judiciary symbolised by the defiant chief justice. Some political parties in the opposition have been quick to jump on the lawyers’ bandwagon. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) has another axe to grind. It has recently suffered the affront of its government being unceremoniously unseated in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. A Supreme Court ruling a fortnight ago debarred the Sharif brothers from holding political office followed by the imposition of governor’s rule that sent the PML-Nawaz government packing. Mr Sharif now wants the court ruling reversed and his party restored to office.
The People’s Party, which won elections a year ago after a nine-year rule by a military strongman, finds itself increasingly beleaguered. Led by Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, the party is most powerful in the centre of the country and in Sindh (its home province in the south). Although the home ministry chief, Rehman Malik, confidently declared in parliament that the long march will be allowed to proceed so long as no one took the law in his own hands, but this has turned out to be a broken promise.
Obviously Mr Zardari feels shaky because, as the crisis escalates, fissures are appearing in the party as leading members are speaking up. This has dangerous implications for a country embroiled in intractable problems. Violence is rife in Pakistan, and terrorism by religious groups claiming to be fighting a jihad has been taking a rising toll of lives. In some regions close to the Afghan border the army has had to negotiate peace accords with militants on their terms. Yet peace is a distant dream as there is no let-up in suicide bombings which continue with unabated ferocity.
Terrorists have developed a new strategy that they used for the first time in Mumbai in November. They seek to create a visible impact by selecting high-profile targets that are subjected to coordinated attacks by well-armed groups. Earlier this month, the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team narrowly escaped when gunmen struck in Lahore and their bus was targeted in similar style.
Seen against this backdrop of violence, Mr Malik’s warning of terrorist attacks during the long march rang alarm bells but did not deter the lawyers or the political workers. It is the common man who has increasingly become apathetic as he sees political instability, with an economic meltdown looming large on the horizon as the stock market index nosedives.
Others, however, have reacted differently. The media and young human rights activists have got involved in the lawyers’ movement in a big way. Modern technology –– television and the Internet —– has emerged as a major communication tool. Bloggers are promising an online ring seat at the ‘long march for justice’ all the way to Islamabad. It is more like a picnic with songs of freedom and videos of interviews of leaders on YouTube to spur on supporters — albeit on the web.
But watching with trepidation are Britain and America whose diplomats have sprung into action to play a mediatory role as they meet various parties. They have as much of a stake in a peaceful Pakistan as anyone else. Efforts are underway to persuade the president to be more flexible.
There are people who fear the collapse of democracy at the hands of a civil dictatorship, as Zardari’s regime is being described. Political analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, the author of Military Inc, a book on the Pakistan Army, predicts that ‘the boots will eventually march back from the barracks into the corridors of power — if not today or tomorrow then certainly the day after’.