Pakistan: has it reached the edge of the precipice?

March 10, 2009

Maybe this always happens at times of national upheaval. But there is a surprising disconnect between the immediacy of the crisis facing Pakistan as expressed by Pakistani bloggers and the more slow-moving debate taking place in the outside world over the right strategy to adopt towards both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Reading Pakistani blogs since confrontation between the country’s two main political parties exploded and comparing them to international commentaries is a bit like watching men shout that their house is on fire, and then panning over to the fire station where the folks in charge are debating which type of water hose works best.

With lawyers and supporters of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif vowing to blockade parliament later this week over the refusal of President Asif Ali Zardari to reinstate fired judges, the country is steeling itself for violent street protests, which in turn could provide easy targets for suicide bombers seeking to add to the mayhem.  Sharif has talked about “a prelude to a revolution”, prompting the government to threaten him with charges of sedition.

Writing in Pak Tea House, a blogger who had insisted right up until February that Pakistan would turn out all right said this had been based on the assumption political parties would pull back from outright confrontation in the interests of the country. “I was wrong. And so faced with altered facts, I have changed my opinion. Pakistan is unraveling.”

The blog Changing up Pakistan makes the inevitable comparison with watching a car accident in slow motion, while a blogger at Deadpan Thoughts complains about March madness. “When policies are decided on the streets, things never come to a good end,” he writes.

Metroblogging Lahore carries a series of photos of protests in Lahore. Scroll down for his photo of a live mouse hanging from a protest board - the kind of tiny detail that stays with you perhaps more than the other images. “The little mouse was trembling and paying with its life for someone else’s crimes,” the photographer writes.

Panning out to the bigger picture, is international debate about how to stop Pakistan from becoming a failed state by pumping in development aid and devising a regional strategy involving Iran, Russia, China and India to bring stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But all of these will take time to put in place,and are not designed to douse the immediate conflagration.

Pakistan has weathered crises before, of which the biggest was its defeat in 1971 when it lost control of then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.  And to be fair, we didn’t have bloggers back then to provide a blow-by-blow account of the anguish of Pakistanis caught in the maelstrom.

Is this just one more crisis?

Writing in Informed Comment, Juan Cole says “the increasingly rancorous conflict between the left of center, largely secular Pakistan People’s Party and the right of center, big-landlord Muslim League, has the potential to tear the country apart.”

Daniel Markey from the Council on Foreign Relations may have said what many are thinking when he wrote that “there might be even worse things than military rule in Pakistan.” (There has been much talk of how Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani will respond to the crisis despite his pledge to keep the army out of politics.)

The Indian think-tank, the South Asia Intelligence Review, paints a worst case scenario of an Islamist takeover with “an Iran-like shift, with the overwhelming proportion of the Pakistan Army simply tranferring allegiance to the mullahs, eliminating the small remaining secular segment within  the military leadership.”

That seems unlikely, since the Pakistan Army has had a much more dominant role in Pakistan than the Iranian generals who fled with the shah in the 1979 revolution. It is fiercely nationalistic and hardly likely to go along with a takeover by Islamists who do not respect the nation state. 

The only point of comparison, perhaps, is that the Iranian Revolution came from the street and when street protests get out of hand, their outcome becomes unpredictable. So has Pakistan reached the edge of the precipice? Or another turning point in its tortuous history?

(Reuters photo of bloodstains on the ground in Lahore following the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team; and March 6 photo of PML (N) supporters)

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