Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

Pakistan’s chief justice reinstated

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Two years after Iftikhar Chaudhry was first sacked by then President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan government officials said he would be reinstated as Chief Justice after a nationwide protest led by Pakistan’s lawyers.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride. After he was removed by Musharraf, Chaudhry was reinstated only to be sacked again and placed under house arrest along with many other lawyers when the former general declared emergency rule in November 2007. At the time, Pakistani lawyer/politician Aitzaz Ahsan wrote in an editorial in the New York Times that the leaders of the lawyers movement ”will neither be silent nor still”. But he also fretted that the lawyers’ movement would be ignored by the United States and overlooked by the forthcoming election.

Then after an election which brought President Asif Ali Zardari to power, the lawyers protested again in June last year in what they called a “Long March” - named somewhat perversely after the military retreat led by Mao Zedung in the 1930s.  Their protest fizzled after failing to achieve its objective.  This time around, a “Long March” to Islamabad seems to have succeeded. 

“The quiet, patient man is on his third life, having been deposed twice previously by former President Pervez Musharraf.  Let’s hope he serves his term completely, without obstruction, and for the public good,” wrote Arif Rafiq on the Pakistan Policy Blog. “Kudos to the lawyers movement — one of Pakistan’s most organized, disciplined, and strategically-keen social movements.  Kudos to the political parties, third party groups, and street and Internet activists who stuck by their side.”

The other Pakistan: a powerful civil society asserts itself

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Lawyers dressed in black suits scuffling with police, several dragged into police vans. Other marching, their arms linked, shouting slogans and holding placards in a peaceful campaign for justice. If you looked at the TV and still pictures of the “long march” launched by the lawyers in a two-year campaign to uphold the freedom and integrity of the judiciary, they seemed to show a vibrant democracy rather than a country teetering on the brink of failure. It’s a face of Pakistan that has all but got buried in recent months, M Reza Pirbhai, a professor of South Asian history at Louisiana University, wrote in Counterpunch.

“Turban-topped, gun-totting mountain men, stern military dictators and corrupt civilian politicians dominate the global media’s representations of Pakistan, from Washington to New Delhi best fitting the preferred image of the ‘most dangerous place on earth,” he said.

The Pakistan Army and “the history of the stick”

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In his book on the Pakistan Army, South Asia expert Stephen Cohen quotes a senior lieutenant-general as warning the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto against using the military to control political opposition. “If you use a stick too often, the stick will take over,” Cohen quotes the general as saying. “This has always been the history of the stick.”

There’s no sign yet of the Pakistan Army reverting to its usual role of wielding the big stick. But with the police out in force to quell protests in Punjab over a Supreme Court ruling excluding former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from office, the obvious question to ask is whether we are about to see a repeat of the old cycle in which security forces are called out to restore order and end up taking over altogether. Indeed, the Pakistan Army’s first involvement in politics is generally dated to the 1953 imposition of martial law in Lahore – where protests erupted on Thursday over the court ruling.  Sharif has blamed President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, for the ruling.

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