Pakistanis Say No

Wall Street Journal , November 8, 2007

When Gen. Pervez Musharraf suspended Pakistan’s Constitution, declared a state of emergency and put the nation once again under martial law, he expected limited civilian resistance and only ritual international condemnation, in view of his role in the war against terrorism. On both counts, Mr. Musharraf appears to have badly miscalculated.
Police officers clash with lawyers outside the district courts in Multan, Pakistan, on Nov. 6, 2007.
Pakistan’s burgeoning civil society, led by lawyers and encouraged by judges ousted from the Supreme Court, is refusing to be cowed. Protests are spreading despite thousands of arrests and the use of tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. More than 1,700 attorneys have been jailed but still more are taking to the streets. University students have joined the lawyers, and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has vowed to violate a ban on public meetings by leading a rally on Friday.

There are a number of important reasons why Pakistan’s attorneys are leading the protests against Mr. Musharraf. They have a long tradition of activism for rule of law and human-rights issues. In 1968-69, the lawyers started the campaign that resulted in the ouster of Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. They also were at the forefront of the campaign against Mr. Zia-ul-Haq, whose 11-year military rule ended when he died in a 1988 plane crash.

The legal fraternity has another advantage, in that they can afford to confront the government without fearing starvation for their families. Some 65 million of Pakistan’s 160 million people subsist on less than $1 a day, while another 65 million survive just above the poverty line. The poor are willing to participate in organized rallies, such as the one that welcomed Ms. Bhutto back to Pakistan on Oct. 18 (and was targeted by a suicide terrorist), but they generally avoid protest demonstrations where getting arrested and missing work is almost inevitable.

That could change in the days and weeks to come. Although Mr. Musharraf has taken all private and international television channels off the air, images of the protests are being seen all over Pakistan through the Internet and with satellite dishes. Middle-class Pakistanis, and increasingly the poor, are making it clear that they want political freedom, along with an improvement in their economic prospects, and do not consider prosperity and democracy to be mutually exclusive.

The international community has also responded more strongly than Mr. Musharraf expected. The Netherlands has suspended aid, and several donors are reviewing their policy on military and economic assistance. The Bush administration is hoping to defuse the situation through assertive diplomacy. But withdrawal of aid, supported by several congressional leaders, remains a possibility.

Since 9/11, Mr. Musharraf has positioned himself as the key Western ally in the global war against terrorism. But in recent months, he has been too distracted with domestic politics to play an effective role. The U.S., in particular, does not want anti-Musharraf sentiment to result in a fresh wave of anti-Americanism in Pakistan that further fuels terrorism. While some in the U.S. argue about America’s limited options in dealing with the crisis in Pakistan, one could argue that Mr. Musharraf’s options are even more limited.

The more he has to repress critics and political opponents, the less Pakistan will be able to fight terrorism. After all, when troops have to be deployed to detain Supreme Court judges, journalists, lawyers and politicians, there are fewer troops available to fight terrorists. Pakistan’s intelligence services can either spy on dissenting Pakistani civilians or focus their energies on finding Osama bin Laden and his ever increasing number of deputies and operatives around Pakistan. But Pakistan needs to fight terrorism for Pakistan’s sake. Mr. Musharraf cannot endlessly blackmail Washington by hinting that he would withdraw antiterror cooperation if the U.S. pressures him on other issues, including democracy and human-rights violations.

One thing is clear: Mr. Musharraf’s authoritarianism is being challenged by diverse elements in Pakistani society. His self-cultivated image as a benign dictator is a thing of the past, and his recent harsh measures have failed to frighten Pakistan’s civil society and political opposition into submission.

The defiance of the judiciary and the media might not immediately topple Mr. Musharraf, but it could render him ineffective to a point where the military rethinks its options. The army will soon recognize that the only thing keeping the general and his civilian cronies in power is the army’s support. It risks further alienating the Pakistani people and losing their respect as long as it continues to act solely in the interests of Mr. Musharraf and his small band of political allies. At some point, the professional soldiers will wonder whether they should risk their institution’s position to keep him in power.

The army is Mr. Musharraf’s support base. It is a major beneficiary of U.S. security assistance, having received $17 billion since 1954 with equipment worth several hundred million dollars currently in the pipeline. Since 2002, the U.S. has subsidized the Pakistani army to the tune of $150 million per month. The army is also a stakeholder in Pakistan’s growing economy, which benefits from international aid and investment. If Mr. Musharraf’s autocratic policies threaten Pakistan’s prosperity, the army is likely to be less unanimous in its support of its commander.

Already, there are signs of economic fallout from the political turmoil. Rumors of an anti-Musharraf military coup on Monday caused the biggest one-day decline in 16 months on the Karachi Stock Exchange, resulting in losses of an estimated $1.3 billion. Pakistan’s credit rating has been revised downward in anticipation of further civic unrest and international sanctions.

Pakistanis are used to coups d’├ętat where the army takes the helm of government. Things are different this time. In the past, generals have suspended the constitution to remove from power unpopular rulers, usually weakened civilians rightly or wrongly accused of corruption (as was the case when Mr. Musharraf ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999). This is the first time an unpopular military ruler has suspended the constitution to preserve his own rule. In doing so, Mr. Musharraf has clearly overplayed his hand.

Mr. Musharraf cannot blame a civilian predecessor for bringing the country to the brink. If there is internal chaos in Pakistan today, it is of the general’s making. After all, it was his arbitrary decision to remove Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in March that initiated the political crisis which has led to the current “state of emergency.”

Justice Chaudhry, on the other hand, has become a symbol of resistance to arbitrary rule — the man who refused to roll over and disappear, unlike earlier judges who cooperated with military rulers or simply went home when their conscience dictated otherwise. Justice Chaudhry’s call upon the legal fraternity to “Go to every corner of Pakistan and give the message that this is the time to sacrifice” for the supremacy of Pakistan’s Constitution has drawn elements disillusioned with existing political leaders to anti-Musharraf protests.

Among Pakistani political leaders, Ms. Bhutto has emerged as the viable civilian alternative to Mr. Musharraf, with public support at home and acceptance abroad. As the only politician in Pakistan to publicly describe Islamist extremism and terrorism as the principal threat to the nation, Ms. Bhutto was initially measured in her response to Mr. Musharraf’s reckless actions. She demanded that he restore the constitution and call elections as scheduled. She hoped to change his attitude with the threat of putting hundreds of thousands of supporters in the streets, without actually doing so. But Mr. Musharraf’s stubbornness is changing that position.

Like many in the U.S., Ms. Bhutto appears worried about directing attention away from fighting terrorism and destabilizing Pakistan further. But leaving the anti-Musharraf campaign leaderless is not an option. She has positioned herself as an opposition leader who represents the sentiment of the people, but is also willing to accept a negotiated settlement that restores the constitution, ends persecution, and results in free and fair elections leading to full civilian rule.

So far Mr. Musharraf has shown no inclination to negotiate in good faith with Ms. Bhutto or the international community. With each passing day, the Bush administration’s hopes — that with its help there could be a transition to democracy in Pakistan with a continuing role for Mr. Musharraf — are diminishing. Unless Mr. Musharraf changes course quickly, the U.S. will be compelled to start looking beyond him to a more legitimate leader.

Mr. Musharraf seems determined to put his own political survival before the rule of law — actions that warrant the label dictator. Pakistan’s attorneys, and increasingly the rest of its citizenry, seem equally determined to prevent this from happening.