‘You can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” President Musharraf’s current problems look like he was trying to do just that and is now learning his lesson the hard way. How else can one explain the coming together of almost all sections of Pakistani society, from the left to the right, against Musharraf’s decision to suspend the Chief Justice of Pakistan?
The context of Musharraf’s meddling with the judiciary is different. He has created a judicial crisis at a time when he already faces criticism of his domestic and foreign policies within and outside the country. After almost seven years of arbitrariness, Musharraf’s attack on the judiciary has the potential of being the last straw that broke the camel’s back?
On March 9, President Musharraf dismissed Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhury, Chief Justice of Pakistan on charges of ‘misconduct’ and ‘misuse of office.’ The President had obviously counted on a quiet departure of the Chief Justice. What he had not accounted for was the slow simmering discontent among various sections of Pakistani populace.
The mass protests that have resulted all over Pakistan resembles the events in Nepal not long ago.
King Gyanendra had assumed total power in 2005 but the nation-wide uprising in Nepal burst out in February 2006 when he tried to hold ‘rigged’ elections. All sections of Nepalese society came together and seeing the people’s revolt, even Gyanendra’s allies like India and United States adopted a ‘people first’ policy.
Just as King Gyanendra never realized the impact of his actions Musharraf may have met his match: in his people.
There have been many critiques of military rule in Pakistan over the years. However, most commentators have believed that Pakistan’s successive military dictators, whether General Ayub or Zia or Musharraf, have always had control over the machinery of state, especially the army. Moreover, the people even those not very happy with an army dictator were not so incensed as to protest or rise up in revolt.
Ever since the Musharraf regime’s violent suppression of the Baloch uprising (including the killing of Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti) and the loosening grip of the state over parts of NWFP and FATA has created doubts about his ability to run Pakistan effectively.
Rising suicide bombings by radical Islamists and violent attacks on the Pakistani security forces, and even on the President, by Islamist groups have fed fuel to this belief.
Military rulers of Pakistan, from General Ayub to General Musharraf, have normally been able to have good economic growth because they are able to have good ties with the United States and are thus able to get a lot of economic and military aid. Gen Musharraf has had good relations with the Bush administration but the rising Taliban problem in Afghanistan, amongst other issues, has led to the questioning of over ten billion dollars America has given to Musharraf’s Pakistan over the last five years.
Pakistan’s military-led establishment is already worried by growing India-US ties and the progress, however slow, in solving India-China border problems. India’s growing ties with Pakistan’s traditional allies in the Middle East are another cause for concern.
In such a climate another crisis on the home front was the last thing General Musharraf needed.
The last week has seen daily protests and demonstrations in all major cities of Pakistan. Riot police have often had to fire tear gas, detain and arrest protestors. Hundreds of lawyers are on strike throughout the country and opposition activists have taken to the streets.
A large number of those who are protesting are not necessarily supporters of the dismissed Chief Justice but believe that it was a wrong decision of the Musharraf regime and that it is time to stand up against Musharraf’s rule.
Among those protesting were President Musharraf’s predecessor as President Rafiq Tarar and former chief of Pakistan’s spy agency ISI, Lt Gen(retd) Hamid Gul.
According to Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the head of the Islamist party Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Pakistan, a key ally of the government, the present Supreme Judicial Council has no authority and cannot try the Chief Justice.
Lt Gen Hamid Gul, a persistent critic of Musharraf, believes that the present crisis is of Musharraf’s making and the "military as an institution is not collectively responsible for wrong doings of General Musharraf.”
According to several commentators the dismissal of the Chief Justice has led to warnings of a constitutional crisis. Along with sparking violent unrest in all parts of the country, the dismissal has united Islamist and secular opposition to the Government as well as triggered international condemnation of General Musharraf.
A group of 70 British lawyers, including Cherie Blair, the Prime Minster’s wife, have criticized the ‘humiliating treatment of the Chief Justice of Pakistan.’
Most critics and analysts believe that President Musharraf wanted to ensure that the judiciary was a ‘quiet and tame’ set up ahead of the national elections so that when the time came it would rubber stamp any decision taken by him. The recent conduct of the Chief Justice, in taking up controversial cases, belied this view and forced President Musharraf’s hand.
President Musharraf secured parliament’s approval of his constitutional amendment package after the referendum and general election of 2002 under a deal that required him to give up his uniform by 2004 and to hold elections in 2007. He has yet to give up his uniform which he often refers to as his ‘second skin’; and most political analysts are convinced that either elections will not be held in 2007 or that he will once again restrict the political space to ensure that his party and allies win most of the seats.
There is immense domestic and international pressure on Pakistan, though not from key ally United States, to open the domestic arena to Musharraf’s opponents –exiled former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif -- and to allow free and fair elections.
The United States, which considers General Musharraf as an essential ally in the war on terrorism, has said that the judicial dispute was a “matter of deep concern” and had to be resolved “in a way that is completely transparent”.
The popular uprising could continue till the time that one of two things happen – either the army forces President Musharraf to resign and back off and instead of appointing an army person as the head of state goes back to the policy of the 1990s in which civilians were allowed to ‘ostensibly’ be head of government. Or the army is forced to back off and return to the barracks as in Bangladesh and Turkey and the people’s uprising actually inaugurates a people’s government in Pakistan.
There is also another possibility which is that the government might be able to badger the people and opposition into submission through brute force in which case the uprising might die a slow death. Even then, Musharraf would have to back off from his desire to get rid of the Chief Justice.
The long-term repercussions, however, would still be deadly. If there is no political space for protests and demonstrations then recourse to violence, mainly by the Islamists, might be the venue which the youth turn to.
As independent Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said in a recent column “It is only if there is an internal struggle in the society or the elites realize, by some stroke of luck, that predation resulting in de-politicization of the society will produce harmful results and that they must change, that we will see a corresponding change taking place in the system.”
Maybe the time has come for Musharraf and Pakistan’s army to recognize the dreadful consequences of depoliticizing Pakistani society.
Aparna Pande is a doctoral candidate in political science at Boston University