Pakistan’s lawyers: recovering from the anti-climax

June 21, 2008

Lawyers protest in Rawalpindi/Mohsin RazaWith hindsight, it seems clear that a mass movement named after Mao’s Long March but also claiming Gandhi’s principles of non-violence risked disappointing its supporters.  The failure of the Long March by Pakistan’s lawyers to restore judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf, and its dispersal last Saturday, has prompted much debate about why its leaders gave up without at least staging a sit-in.

Defence analyst Ikram Sehgal called the Long March a logistical success in its ability to garner mass support without violence, but a tactical failure. “The tactical failure of this long-lasting tremendous effort founded on great principles has become a strategic disaster for Musharraf’s opponents,” he writes in The News.  “About Pervez Musharraf, ‘with such friends who needs enemies’, one can paraphrase the saying for him: ‘With such enemies why does he need friends?’”

The blog All Things Pakistan says supporters of the Long March “are justifiably feeling let down by the grand posturing, thundering rhetoric and the subsequent retreat from agitation”. But it adds: “The lawyers’ movement is profoundly significant. It constitutes the finest historical ‘moment’ in our troubled history.”

Aitzaz Ahsan, the leader of the lawyers’ movement, writes in Newsweek  that the Long March was “an act of collective and nonviolent defiance perhaps unrivaled in Pakistan’s checkered history”.

“As the first rays of the Saturday sun streaked over Parliament, I delivered the concluding speech, and this remarkable crowd, the biggest in Pakistan’s recent history, dispersed peacefully for the trip home,” he writes. “Not a shot was fired or a pane of glass broken. Yet more than 200,000 Pakistanis had managed to make their point: they wanted their judges back.”

Yet why did the lawyers’ leaders give up without staging a sit-in that might have forced home their point? 

Was it simply poor judgment, as suggested in this piece in the Khaleej Times: “The mystery behind the decision of Aitzaz Ahsan, the man who had so successfully and so untiringly spearheaded an unprecedented campaign of lawyers and civil society, may not be unveiled in near future,” it says. “Those who saw him delivering the concluding speech to close the long march say that he was not in his usual self and was witless.”

Lawyers leader Aitzaz Ahsan (left) with former prime minister Nawaz SharifOr had the movement become too dominated by those, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who were more focused on getting Musharraf out as seen in this BBC video than on restoring the judges?

It’s worth remembering that Gandhi had a habit of calling off protests if he thought they were going in the wrong direction, often irritating his own supporters in doing so. So have the lawyers avoided a confrontation in order to fight all the better another day? Or have they missed their chance?


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