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The Missing Factor in Musharraf's Plan

The Missing Factor in Musharraf's Plan

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

We are not talking about the world reaction to President Pervez Musharraf's proclamation of martial law, euphemistically called an emergency, on November 3. This article's headline, certainly, does not refer to the reaction from Washington, in particular. What the general did not factor in was the fierce response from the Pakistani public.

International indignation could not have been a less-important concern for Musharraf, so long as President George Bush mentioned him as an "anti-terror ally" and paid this tribute even while doing "tough talking" on democracy to his Pakistani counterpart. Musharraf, however, has good reason for grave concern over the growing popular resistance to his latest misadventure.

No other military coup d'etat in Pakistan had led to such a consequence. The country's first military dictator, General Ayub Khan, took power on October 27, 1958, after deposing then-President Iskandar Ali Mirza in a bloodless coup and packing him off, in what was to become something like a national tradition, to the UK. By all accounts, the takeover received a fairly wide public welcome in view of the preceding conditions of acute political instability.

The second in the string of uniformed dictators, General Yahya Khan, got power on a platter on March 25, 1969, from Ayub Khan who decided he'd had enough of problems including popular discontent over many domestic issues after a decade of personal rule. Yahya Khan lasted in power until 1971, the year of the revolt in East Pakistan that led to the birth of Bangladesh. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and father of Benazir Bhutto, succeeded him, first as president in 1971 and then as prime minister in 1973.

The third of the tinpot dictators, General Zia-ul-Haq, grabbed power by overthrowing Bhutto, in a bloodless coup again, on July 5, 1977. No popular protests, however, greeted Zia-ul-Haq. Years in office had inevitably eaten into Bhutto's popularity, and he also faced mounting dissidence within the PPP.

Adopted by Washington as a Musharraf-like staunch ally in the anti-Soviet Afghan war, he exercised unbridled power with the backing of fundamentalists, executing Bhutto in the process in 1979, until his death in a mysterious air crash.

Cut to October 12, 1999, when the would-be fourth dictator was circling the skies over the Karachi airport in a commercial airliner. There were no popular rallies on ground in support of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had ordered the airport closed. In midair, Musharraf ordered the army to take over the airport and had Sharif first arrested and then exiled. The general landed at the airport, if not as a national hero, at least as an acceptable leader.

He was actually to grow in popularity in the subsequent period. He had the gift of gab and seemed to rely on his smiling demeanor and suave diplomacy as much as on his uniform and its aura of authority. It seems ages ago, but the time was when many in Pakistan seemed to trust his word on restoring democracy and returning to elections.

The tide, however, began to turn when the appearances began to seem deceptive. The proclamation of November 3 confirmed some of the worst public fears. Musharraf and his cronies have done nothing since then to mitigate the apprehensions. The promise of elections by February 15 has not sufficed to quell the political storm that has certainly taken him by surprise.

According to a statement of November 7 from the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), after three days of protests, at least 3,500 lawyers, 500 human rights defenders, 100 political workers, 46 judges (including Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary, the icon of anti-Musharraf resistance) and 12 journalists had been held. Some had been detained under a draconian Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance, often from the streets and their houses without any notice of arrest.

The lawyers, of course, have been in the lead in the struggle that started as a secular and democratic protest against the sacking of a politically inconvenient chief justice. The legal fraternity, consequently, has borne the brunt of state repression. According to the AHRC, dissenting judges of superior courts have been "literally locked inside their residences" and told that they would be confined there until they agreed to cooperate. "They have had their phone lines cut and are being isolated from the outside world to force compliance." Lawyers in lower courts are reported to have protested by pelting with rotten eggs judges who have taken fresh oaths of office. Prominent members of the peace movement, especially those known to work for India-Pakistan amity, have been placed under house arrest. Noted and intrepid human-rights activist Asma Jehangir is one of them. Another is Salima Hashmi - activist, painter and daughter of pioneering Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose seminal works are cherished as part of the subcontinent's shared heritage.

The resistance has reportedly found a new resurgence, with students joining the opposition to the autocracy of "Busharraf." Demonstrations took place on November 7 in most public and private universities in the main cities.

The print media still manage to publish stories of protests and punishments. The electronic media, however, have not escaped the concentrated fury of the state. As one report puts it: "You can only watch songs, dances, sports and religious readings on different channels, but no news bulletin is allowed apart from the official Pakistan Television."

Among the leading participants in the struggle is a sizable and spirited community of overseas Pakistanis. Some of the overseas groups are even involved in organizing resistance inside the country. The internet is playing as significant a role in Pakistan's pro-democracy struggle as it has done in the antiwar movement in the West.

All told, Pakistan is witnessing middle-class militancy of an order unprecedented in the nation's annals. The phenomenon has experts investigating its socioeconomic causes. It also has some others asking: What about the other classes, the basic masses whose ballot matters more than anyone else's?

The resistance might have once appeared an all-middle-class affair. The popular reception accorded to Benazir Bhutto on her return to Pakistan on October 18, however, promised a broadening of the struggle. The promise has been kept in PPP protests in Islamabad and elsewhere, with poor supporters of Bhutto braving police batons, too. The party has served notice of "a long march" from Lahore to Islamabad on November 13.

If allowed to take place at all, the event can become the beginning of an undoubtedly long march towards a mass struggle for democracy and against military rule, the kind that Pakistan cries out for.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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