From across the country they took to the streets, re-enacting scenes from the darkest days of the Musharraf regime over a year earlier.
The face of President Asif Ali Zardari, with his white toothy grin, beamed ominously from numerous Pakistan Peoples Party posters throughout the city. The throng in turn held placards with the images of Pakistan’s deposed Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, and slogans calling for justice and democracy.
In Pakistan, not only does history repeat, but the faces tend not to change very much.
The numbers at yesterday’s Long March rally across Pakistan were not as large as during November and December 2007 when unrest under the former military dictator was at its height. But passions were just as high. From each of Pakistan’s major cities, and particularly Karachi, Lahore and Quetta, demonstrators gathered to begin the march towards Islamabad, the nation’s capital.
I was in the "Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry room" of the Sindh High Court Bar Association to witness the start of the Karachi procession. Outside the building, police and soldiers had assembled behind heavy barricades and fences. It didn’t appear as though the protest would last very long.
Adviser to the Prime Minister for Interior Affairs, Rehman Malik, a man who despite his title is effectively the main lieutenant of President Zardari, tried to dissuade would-be protesters by warning of "terrorists and enemies of the country" staging attacks during the march.
There were, thankfully, no attacks by militants or others. And although police and soldiers lining the route of the procession routinely updated their superiors on the procession’s movement through the city, they did not arrest anyone immediately. That task came soon after, however, when the protesters converged at the Mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father. Others were arrested as they reached a highway tollway leaving the city on their long journey to the capital — far away from the view of ordinary citizens in Karachi, Pakistan’s most densely populated city.
The aim of the protest movement is the reinstatement of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as former Chief Justice of Pakistan. Musharraf dismissed Chaudhry in March 2007 because the judge refused to rubber-stamp his regime. Although most of the demonstrators were lawyers in their signature black suits, they were joined — some would say hijacked — by supporters of opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and other political parties. The Long March movement has also been joined by many human rights activists.
The protest movement remained dormant for several months, particularly after Musharraf was forced to resign in August last year under the combined pressure of a Zardari-Sharif opposition. But as President Zardari’s rule has become increasingly autocratic, and particularly after the Supreme Court ruled that key opposition figures, the Sharif brothers, were unfit for politics, the Long March has transformed into a street-level vote of no-confidence in the Government.
Zardari himself was keeping a low profile this week. As late as yesterday afternoon it was still unclear whether he was even in the country — he had flown to the tax-haven of Dubai after an official visit to Iran. There were murmurs that he was staying abroad for fear of being ousted by the political opposition, or the Army, or even his own party. Eventually, however, it was determined that Zardari had discreetly travelled back to the country to meet senior politicians.
Such are the uncertainties of Pakistani politics. His loyal lieutenant, Rehman Malik, spent the whole day playing good cop and bad cop. On Wednesday, Malik had spoken of a crackdown on protesters. Yesterday, he was forced to back down. There was no more dramatic example of this than the image, broadcast live on private television networks, of the botched attempt to arrest the deposed Chief Justice’s spokesperson. Spotted by police while driving on a busy street in the nation’s capital, Athar Minallah resisted arrest by locking his car. Minallah promptly called the media who rushed to his car and interviewed him through a window, as Malik, who was also driving on the same street, was forced to intervene and order the police to stand down.
"We are not against the Long March," a stern faced Malik, now engaged in damage control, later told the National Assembly. Malik went on to deny that he ever ordered the arrest of opposition figures, including members of Parliament and lawyers, but the claim came across as disingenuous.
The silver lining in the current drama is that it proves that
Pakistan’s grassroots democracy movement is still alive and well.
Attempts by Pakistan’s rulers to instigate autocratic measures, in
contrast, are becoming increasingly ineffective.
In the lead up to the protest, there were attempts to arrest other senior political figures, such as the Sharif brothers and Imran Khan. A prominent human rights activist was also targeted. These attempts were not successful — but hundreds of brave, nameless, ordinary citizens have been arrested throughout the country, and especially in the largest cities of Lahore and Karachi, for daring to express their democratic rights.
If the mere act of consolidating his grip on power is this haphazard, what confidence can there be, both domestically and internationally, in President Zardari’s capacity to confront the economic and security crises the country is facing?
Most ominously, hot on the heels of the daring, murderous attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers last week, it will likely embolden those who seek to inflict the greatest harm on the state, and therefore the people of Pakistan.
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