By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Some months ago I swore off writing about Pakistan. I got tired of calling attention to the same old problems over and over again.
What were the characteristics of this status quo? Bear with me. The army playing two dysfunctional parties off against one another, while preserving the pleasant fiction of civilian rule. Successive governments headed by non-tax-paying elites propped up (along with the army) by U.S. largesse, both salving pride by biting the hand with the aid. A well-armed and well-trained military-industrial complex tolerating (and perhaps encouraging) murderous sectarian violence throughout the country, especially since Taliban-allied fanatics may be guaranteed to assassinate any credible, secular civilian leader with the potential to challenge military supremacy. A social structure that punishes women and girls who aspire to be more than brood mares and/or mutely acquiescent wives for males whose perverted sense of honor (at all levels of the social structure) resides in female degradation. And so on. Oh dear, I forgot to mention the corruption. Think Swiss cheese. Total. Plus this: any decent, relatively moderate religious leader who doesn’t keep his mouth shut is also likely to be assassinated.
Enter—after six or seven years in Canada, no less— Dr Tahirul Qadri, who announced that he would lead a “million man march” from Lahore to Islamabad to cleanse the country.
Nowhere Near a Million
In fact, only some tens of thousands converged on Pakistan’s capital, where many remain, peaceably, but closely watched by security forces. I had wondered how many unhappy people would join the march on Islamabad. The numbers, while considerable, fall well below the regime-toppling minimum, I’d guess.
And yet, the prime minister Raza Pervez Ashraf has been arrested and hauled before the Supreme Court on charges of graft. He may be the second People’s Party Prime Minister to lose his job this way in very short order. Jusuf Raza Gilani was dismissed last June, also on charges of massive corruption. Is there any connection between the fate of the current PM and the Qadri march?
The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has been at odds with military and civilian governments for years now. General Pervez Musharraf, as president, tried to get rid of this troublesome Chief Justice, who survived to become the bane of the country’s sitting President Asaf Zardari, also PPP, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. Given CJ Chaudery’s feistiness, I’d suspect he hasn’t been cowed. He’s being opportunistic. Is this sagacious? Or is it evidence that the Supreme Court, at the moment, isn’t feeling powerful or confident enough to act without serendipitous populist cover? A Supreme Court that doubts its mission and capacity to act constitutionally is not a very good bastian of the rule of law. This would be very troubling.
Could Qadri be the One?
So how about this Qadri character? Not only is he a Shi’a, which is to say a member of the minority sect in Pakistan, he’s a Sufi, which may somewhat overcome that disadvantage, since many South Asian Sunnis are attracted to the mystical elements of Sufism. Nevertheless, the Pakistani Taliban in their various guises have been waging a very violent, very aggressive war against Shi’ism and all other deviations from their own notion of pure Islam. It’s been open season on Shias in Karachi and Lahore for decades. More recently there were ghastly massacres in Quetta which targeted the Hazara, who are ethnically distinct Shi’a refugees from the chaos in Afghanistan. The survivors planted the coffins of the victims in the middle of the city and refused to inter the fallen until the government guaranteed they wouldn’t be mowed down while burial rites were being conducted. In the end, an unresponsive unsympathetic state government was dismissed and the funerals went ahead, but the declaration of Governor’s Rule in Baluchistan has created its own chain of violent protest. This is Pakistan. So fraught with violence is the religious situation that the self-declared pacifist Qadri has had to travel behind bullet proof glass.
The sectarian divide in Pakistan may explain why Qadri’s march has been less overwhelming than he’d hoped or predicted, however unhappy most Pakistanis may be with the current political situation. The country is 75% Sunni, only 20% Shia. This demographic split may also suggest why this nevertheless fairly impressive turnout may not be a tipping point. Qadri may rail all he wants against corruption and elitism. He may also be absolutely right. Yet, especially if the military continues to keep its cool and manages not to shoot a lot of noisy, demanding people, Qadri is not likely to be the figure who brings down the government or the regime. But he's had more stying power, so far, than might have been expected.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for May in Pakistan, it’s likely that Qadri’s influence will be no greater, and possibly less, than Anna Hazare’s wildly popular, religiously-inspired anti-corruption, pro-reform hunger strike in India a little less than two years ago. But maybe not. India, for all its problems and complications, is considerably stronger and stabler than Pakistan. However, my guess is that there's no Arab-style spring ahead for Pakistan. The most radical thing that's likely to happen is that the military will decide it’s time to step in and take over, again. They won’t if elections produce a sufficiently pliable figurehead government, as usual. Or if a miracle happens and a truly capable, popular, honest government emerges, which (I regret to say) is hard to imagine, given the peformance of the major parties, in Islamabad and the state capitals, which have been granted far more power in recent years.
And so the cycle will begin again.
Unless the Taliban get strong enough to attack the "settled areas" with more than car bombs, at which point the Army will be faced with a very interesting decision. Will it continue to protect, in its own way, the current constitutional order? Will it protect Qadri whose reform demands, so far, fall far short of the requirements of radical Islam, thus allowing him to agitate without rick of assassination? Or will it perpetuate its power by throwing in with the Taliban, more or less covertly as the military in Egypt have done with the Brotherhood?
Crystal ball anyone?