Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
President Asif Ali Zardari’s trip to Britain was particularly ill-fated. When he first planned a visit which should have culminated in him bringing his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, out into the political arena, no one could have predicted such a bewildering series of crises. A row with Britain over remarks made in India by British Prime Minister David Cameron that Pakistan must not “look both ways” in its approach to Islamist militants. Pakistan’s worst floods in 80 years. A plane crash, and then riots in Karachi.
So it was perhaps par for the course that his final event in Britain, a political rally in the city of Birmingham for British Pakistani supporters of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), should be dogged by controversy. Zardari faced a firestorm of criticism for going ahead with the visit while his country faced so many problems, and the combination of protesters outside the rally and a shoe-thrower inside appeared to mark the culmination of a disastrously ill-judged overseas tour.
Having been to the Birmingham event, I have to say it was not quite as chaotic and ill-tempered as some media coverage suggested. The protesters outside were a microcosm of Pakistan’s disunited politics, each separate group of demonstators operating independently and shouting for their own competing agendas – from the restoration of the Caliphate to independence for Kashmir. They were vastly outnumbered by the PPP supporters who packed Birmingham’s International Convention Centre - many of them staid, respectable middle-aged Pakistani men and women who had emigrated to Britain decades ago, worked hard and kept close family links back home.
And Zardari certainly was not “pelted with shoes”. The man who said he tried to throw his shoes in protest over Zardari’s response to the floods was standing well back in what was a very large conference hall and had little chance of getting anywhere near the president before he was hustled away by security guards. Zardari did not interrupt his speech, most of the audience continued to listen to him politely, and it is conceivable that those sitting at the front did not even notice at the time what had happened. That in any case is how it looked from where I was sitting – it would be easier to judge the event if the video replay had not been edited out – but my impression was that it was not such a big incident to justify the reaction, or counter-reaction in Pakistan.