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Resistance growing to crackdown in Pakistan

November 16, 2007 | Page 5

DAVID WHITEHOUSE analyzes new developments following Musharraf's emergency decree.

PAKISTAN'S MILITARY regime has responded to a week of growing resistance to martial law with a combination of repression and concessions.

Since his emergency decree on November 3, dictator Pervez Musharraf has dismissed an uncooperative supreme court and jailed at least 5,000 lawyers, human rights activists, journalists and opposition party workers. The regime shut down all private television stations and passed a new law that grants sweeping judicial powers to the military.

But the unexpected level of opposition--combined with a stock market crash on the Monday following the decree--pressured Musharraf to promise that parliamentary elections would take place on schedule by January 9. The regime initially said that elections could be delayed by as much as a year.

Musharraf didn't set a date for lifting the emergency, however, and opposition leaders were quick to point out that elections could not be fair under Pakistan's current levels of repression.

Confrontations were virtually certain to continue as lawyers kept up a nationwide strike against appearing before stooge judges, and Musharraf vowed to stop a 170-mile protest march called by collaborator-turned-oppositionist Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan.

What else to read

David Whitehouse has written regularly on Pakistan for the International Socialist Review. His article "Turning point in Pakistan" appears in the current issue, now on sale.

Farooq Tariq, general secretary of the Labour Party Pakistan, has posted dispatches since going underground. The party's Web site, when available, carries these, along with ongoing analysis of the crisis. Ron Jacob's interview with Farooq Tariq, "A view from the Pakistani Left," published on the CounterPunch Web site, provides essential background to the current situation.

Many Pakistani newspapers are still publishing (in English) with minimal censorship. One useful one is The Nation.

Author and veteran activist Tariq Ali is a native of Pakistan. His article "Pakistan sinks deeper into night" was one of the first responses to the emergency decree. He also wrote a very useful longer analysis of Pakistani politics, "Pakistan at sixty," in the London Review of Books. There is an excellent chapter on Pakistan in Ali's book The Clash of Fundamentalisms.


For most of 2007, Bhutto has tried, with U.S. help, to negotiate a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. Her endorsement of him as a civilian president would make up for his loss of support among Islamist parties. For his part, Musharraf could wipe away charges that Bhutto and her husband looted Pakistan's treasury when she was prime minister--and clear legal obstacles to her serving a third term.

For a few days following the emergency decree, Bhutto hesitated to endorse the street protests, but she changed course as the resistance gained intensity and spread to university students on November 7. As Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid put it, "Civil society is her vote bank, and if she appears to be in Musharraf's pocket, she loses that bank."

Although Bhutto has sworn off any more talks with Musharraf while the country is under martial law, she appears to have a backchannel understanding with the regime.

Troops prevented a rally by her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) on November 9--and blocked her from leaving her neighborhood--but her speech from behind the barbed wire was broadcast nationally by the country's official TV affiliates.

Other oppositionists, such as former cricket star Imran Khan and leftist Farooq Tariq of the Labour Party Pakistan, have been forced underground. Khan pointed out that figures such as Bhutto and the Islamist Fazlur Rehman--who might be future partners with Musharraf--are the only oppositionists who have any freedom to move about openly.

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THE BUSH administration's response to Musharraf's emergency decree has been even more cautious than Bhutto's.

George Bush reaffirmed that Musharraf is a crucial ally of the U.S. in the "war on terror" and welcomed the announcement of January elections. He called for the "president general" to leave his military post, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tepidly asked him to lift the emergency decree "as soon as possible."

But both affirmed that military aid would continue--at a yearly rate of about $750 million--and neither called for Musharraf to reinstate the rebellious supreme court.

The growing independence of the court was the real reason for declaring martial law--although Musharraf also cited the need to combat the influence of Islamist militants. The court was days away from ruling on a challenge to Musharraf's right to contest the October 6 election while still in uniform.

An earlier attempt to interfere with the court--when Musharraf fired its chief justice, Muhammad Iftikhar Choudhry, in March--was the spark for the year's first round of secular opposition to military rule. A protest movement of thousands of lawyers, which gained widespread sympathy and was repressed in a bloody attack by security forces, gave the remaining justices the unexpected nerve to reinstate Choudhry in June.

Besides opposing Musharraf's role as president while still chief of the army, the traditionally loyalist court had become a focus for resistance to other expansions of the military's power. The business elite, for example, is concerned about "nationalizations" that promote a steady military takeover of the economy--and the court investigated kickbacks in the nationalization process.

In an even more direct challenge to the military, Choudhry's supreme court demanded an accounting of hundreds of nationalist activists who have been persecuted, tortured or "disappeared" in the western state of Baluchistan. Recently, the court freed 60 "terrorism suspects" who had been held for months without charge.

After dismissing most of the court, Musharraf last week retroactively justified his repression back to 2003--with a new law that grants the military powers to detain civilians indefinitely and court-martial them for infractions as minor as "giving statements conducive to public mischief."

When reporters challenged the military's right to circumvent the civilian courts, Attorney General Malik Muhammad Qayyum cited the USA PATRIOT Act and similar measures in Britain and India as precedents.

Benazir Bhutto herself hesitated for several days before calling for a reinstatement of the fired judges. She faces a court challenge of her own--to an amnesty that Musharraf passed in October to clear her of the corruption charges. With her credibility as an opposition leader at stake, she finally went to Choudhry's home--where he is under house arrest--and declared that "Iftikhar is the real chief justice."

Bhutto is competing for popularity with another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf deposed in a coup in 1999. Sharif has a stronger record as an opponent of the regime, a reputation that was bolstered when Musharraf prevented him from returning to the country in September.

Sharif's strength is in the populous Punjab state, where Bhutto has sometimes run third in popularity behind Sharif and Musharraf. If she still hopes to be prime minister, she needs to make a strong electoral showing in Punjab cities such as Lahore and Islamabad--the places she has chosen to begin and end her "long march" in protest of military rule.

The entry of Bhutto's PPP into the struggle could broaden its social base beyond the relatively privileged forces that have taken to the streets so far. Although Bhutto is a billionaire proponent of free-market economics--who owns at least five houses--her rhetoric is populist, and the PPP's strength has been built on mobilizations of a working-class base for spectacular events.

Bhutto will want to keep the crowds strictly under control, but she can only call them out by raising the social issues they care most about--unemployment, poverty and rising prices. The stakes of the struggle are thus bound to keep rising.

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MEANWHILE, THOUGH Musharraf's war with militants allied with the Taliban was not his real reason for declaring the emergency, the regime still does face a growing challenge in the areas that border Afghanistan.

Islamist militants have extended their political and social control from the "tribal areas" to the state of Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). An uprising in NWFP's Swat district--a tourist area with ski slopes--has left 250 dead since October. The fighting culminated last week in the surrender of 200 troops of Pakistan's Frontier Corps, and the lowering of Pakistani flags in the district.

Meanwhile, away from the border, Islamist militants could still mount deadly attacks against politicians such as Musharraf and Bhutto, who escaped harm in an October 18 bombing that killed 200 of her supporters.

U.S. officials, who recognize the instability of this key ally in the "war on terror," are playing a game of wait-and-see. They may wish they had a better option than backing Musharraf, but they are afraid that any signal of wavering support could promote divisions in the army--the country's central institution and the one that controls its nuclear weapons.

At the same time, they must recognize that Pakistanis are fed up with Musharraf and military rule. The administration may once have shared Musharraf's hope that he could step down as army chief and still retain real power. At this point, though, they may support a genuine demotion of the general that can restore some of the state's--and the army's--credibility among the mass of Pakistanis.

In any case, the next steps are in the hands of Pakistanis, not Americans.

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