When Pakistan’s extremely stuffy advocates remove their funny little white wigs and demonstrate en masse in the streets of the capital—still dressed for court in their very proper black suits, some pinstriped, and their very proper black ties—you know that a line has been crossed in the course of Pakistan’s most recent interlude of military rule.
That Pesky Judge
What that lawyerly demonstration in Islamabad showed is that, at last, educated, secular-minded, democracy-oriented Pakistanis from all provinces have something important and someone honest to rally around. A capable, highly respected Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Iftakhar Mohamed Chaudhry had been charged with offenses widely considered to be bogus lest he make it difficult for Pervez Musharraf to get himself “re-elected” (again) to Pakistan’s presidency. The CJ had been declared “non-functional” until a “hearing” could be held.
The outpouring of indignation that occurred in Islamabad was repeated in Lahore, where the CJ actually spoke to local legal groups. In Quetta, too. And the performance would have been massively repeated in Karachi on Saturday, with the support of the normally bitterly at odds Peoples’ Party and Muslim League, among others, if there hadn’t been a little glitch. The streets were already clogged with Musharraf supporters. There was no peaceful way through or around them.
Gee. Wonder how that happened?
Let’s Have a Rally!
Suddenly, it seems, for no particular reason pertaining to the Pakistani calendar or anything else, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) needed to hold a rally in Karachi and a permit was issued. Boom! Just like that! Which doesn’t normally happen in Pakistan. What’s more, some 15,000 policemen were immediately assigned to watch over the proceedings. The thing to be aware of here is that the MQM in alliance with Musharraf supporters controls the state assembly in Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital.
By Sunday morning there were at least 34 dead and 160 wounded on the streets of Karachi. Chief Justice Chaudhry never got farther than the Karachi airport lounge and Peoples’ Party representatives who attempted to go to the airport to meet him were fired upon. Eleven were injured “by MQM terrorists,” according to the PPP website. The Muslim League website also protests the violence, though not very effectively. Both PPP and ML need to use their websites more pro-actively. (Although, if they did, the sites might be closed down!)
See the Obstructionist Strategy for Yourself
Yet, despite all its pix of the day’s events and its attempt to make the MQM look like the real party of the people, the MQM website turns out to be a case of shooting yourself in the foot. It gives the Musharraf strategy away as it narrates pictorially the successful attempt to prevent the CJ from speaking to his colleagues of the bar in Karachi.
One series of photos depicts Karachi streets totally clogged by marching MQMers with MQM flags and banners, MQM trucks and MQM motorcyles (note: early deaths came from zooming motorcyclists), summed it up this way:
People of Karachi have not slept and are on the streets of Karachi in anticpation of the MQM rally. Celebrations of the rally can be seen all over the city. Not a single street where MQM flags and banners are not present.Unidentified young men clutching automatic weapons are featured in another group of pix, whose caption refers to the People’s Party and the Muslim League as “terrorist groups.” This is more than a little heavy-handed. There’s no doubt, unfortunately, that the PPP and the ML are corrupt, nepotistic and self-serving. This is why they generally get turned out of office fairly quickly after winning an election of the throw-the-rascals-out sort. But street violence is actually a speciality of the MQM (and various religious extremists). For instance, when I was poll-watching in Karachi during the period 1997-1998, we moved around from precinct to precinct very very carefully for fear of getting shot at by MQM elements attempting to keep people from voting for competing parties and to keep watchers from accurately reporting procedures and results.
Back to Saturday’s events. According to VOA, “Pakistan television showed people marching through Karachi streets carrying handguns, assault rifles and flags of a pro-government party.” What’s more, “pro-government gunmen attacked the [Aaj Television] network’s offices after it showed live footage of the violence outside.” The Aaj news director said: “This is like a battle field. There is no law enforcement in sight and bullets are flying all around.”
And, oh yes, there just happened to be an electricity failure that blacked out the televising of the CJ's speech in Lahore. Mere coincidence, the government says.
All news reports agree that the 15,000 policemen did nothing to stop the carnage.
What Really Worries Musharraf
As I watched Pakistanis demonstrate their desperate desire for the rule of law over the past two weeks, I found myself wondering if they had at last, in CJ Chaudhry, found a figure who could unite secularly-oriented democrats sickened by the misrule of Pakistan’s benighted PPP and ML. I certainly don't want a reputable judge to go into politics, but after all these years, Pakistani voters have no honest party to represent them. If either of the major political parties had ruled Pakistan responsibly while in power, there would have been no pretext for periodic Army intervention. First there was Ayub Khan. Then Zia-ul-Haq. And now there’s Pervez Musharraf, who has masqueraded as a moderate in politics.
But now Musharraf’s bluff has been called. He can tolerate firebrand maulanas threatening to impose immediate implementation of a strict version of sharia law. He can allow veiled girl students to rampage through Islamabad, harassing people they consider immoral and holding authorities to ransom. He can give Al Qaeda a safe haven on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan. He can even allow Islamists to impose their own version of Islam on everyone in North Wazirastan. As a Dawn editorialist complains, the Taliban have
banned the sale of music and even listening to it in public places. They did it in their usual threatening manner, forcibly removing tape players from buses or destroying CDs. That they have no legal right to order such prohibitions means nothing to them, nor does it seem to affect the government which looks the other way whenever the Taliban try to impose their notions of Islamic laws....In the last few months, one has heard of men being ordered to be beheaded on suspicion of being spies, music or barber shops being blown up, girls being prevented from going to school and other equally appalling do’s and don’ts...This must stop. No one has the right to enforce religion in this matter. It is the government’s responsibility to maintain law and order...and one else’s. Any failure to do so will have grave consequences.
The grave consequences, of course, are already underway: the attempts by emboldened Taliban sympathizers to impose a similar regime on Islamabad and elsewhere outside the tribal areas. But Pervez Musharraf can do nothing about such challenges, it’s said, because Pakistan’s army is increasingly sympathetic to conservative Islam and the notorious ISI has long been cozily in bed with the Taliban.
So what’s a military dictator-cum-president to do if he wants to stay in power? Why harass the real enemy, the people who believe in the rule of law. When lawyers without guns take to the streets, they must be stopped at any cost.
You'd think, then, that Musharraf would be a strange ally for an American president. In fact, the similarities are striking. US President George W. Bush won his first election illegitimately, stays in power by currying the support of Christian fundamentalists, has encouraged his operatives to rig elections by hook or by crook, has done his best to subvert the judiciary and the rule of law and pays no attention to the voice of the majority of the voters in the 2006 election when it comes to the conduct of the war in Iraq. So where's the difference?