When was the last time you read about an effort to overthrow a government by the nation’s legal profession under the leadership of an improperly dismissed Supreme Court chief justice? The idea sounds absurd. But this is exactly what is happening in Pakistan today.
Pakistan never ceases to produce curious tales, and indeed it has long furnished a case study for some of the most absurd propositions in American foreign policy. A nation which is the single most troubling breeding grounds on earth for Islamic militancy, but is described by a U.S. secretary of state as America’s “most important non-NATO ally.” Its leader is hailed as a “strong leader,” whom Bush “admires” and is invited as a state guest to Washington, even as American commanders in Afghanistan accuse him of giving the Taliban and al Qaeda a safe camp for operations in Baluchistan province and in the homeland of Gunga Din – the Northwestern Frontier Province. Moreover, while U.S. foreign policy promises to promote democracy in the Muslim world, in Pakistan, once a vibrant democracy – it has done just the opposite: promoting military dictatorship and oppressing groups which are committed to restoration of the nation’s democracy. U.S. policy towards Pakistan is an incoherent muddle, and it may be about to get a shake up.
The likelihood that Pervez Musharraf will be Pakistan’s president this time next year are slim, but exactly how he will be pried from his perch is as uncertain as the face of his successor.
But for the moment, the focus is on Pakistan’s former chief justice and the nation’s rebellious lawyers. Edward Gomez reports in the San Francisco Chronicle:
After [Musharraf] fired Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the chief justice of Pakistan’s High Court, several weeks ago, claiming the high-ranking judge had used his influence to help obtain a police job for his son, many lawyers and members of the country’s legal community have thrown their support behind the ousted jurist. (“World Views,” May 8, 2007)
For them, Chaudhry has become a symbol of the abuses of Musharraf’s dictatorship. Over the weekend of May 5-6, Chaudhry traveled by motorcade from Islamabad to Lahore, greeted by large crowds of supporters along the way. Upon arriving in Lahore, he addressed a pro-democracy rally (which was regarded, in effect, as an anti-Musharraf protest demonstration).
This past Saturday, Chaudhry traveled by air to Karachi, Pakistan’s financial center, where many of the judge’s countrymen expected him to receive “a similar reception.” Instead, the ousted “chief justice found himself stranded at [the] airport for nine hours as the city descended into anarchy.” A riot broke out between opponents of Musharraf’s regime and its supporters, leading to as many as 40 deaths, some news sources have reported, and propelling “the anti-government lawyers’ movement into a new phase.”
No, it doesn’t look like the judges and lawyers will storm the presidential palace and topple Musharraf. But Musharraf’s position is dangerously weak now. He is viewed as an illegitimate figure by most of the population, and the prospect of being attacked by the nation’s legal establishment – almost unprecedented in history – has highlighted this shortcoming. However, these developments have permitted Chief Justice Chaudhry to emerge as a focus point around which Musharraf’s multitudinous enemies can rally. Chaudhry hasn’t called for Musharraf to step down, not yet, but he has done everything just short of that. A charismatic figure, Chaudhry has spoken passionately about the rule of law and the need to put Pakistan back on track towards respect for its constitutional and legal heritage. He has assailed the authoritarianism of Musharraf’s government, and has spoken about its vulgar corruption. His words are accepted as the truth by the vast majority of Pakistanis – as they should be.
This is not to say that Chaudhry is any sort of panacea or that he presents a clear formula for solving Pakistan’s problems. Indeed, those problems seem horrific and almost insurmountable at this problem. But he does effectively highlight how under Musharraf those problems have gotten considerably worse.
Specifically, Musharraf has touted a restructuring of Pakistan’s federalism and a devolution of political and police power in large parts of the country to forces closely allied with him which is contributing to the collapse of Pakistan as a state. In Baluchistan and the NWFP, Musharraf’s policies have allowed the Taliban and militant Islamicist organizations to establish a military base from which they are striking out against Afghanistan. And this makes Pakistan increasingly approach the model of a “failed” – and certainly a lawless – state.
What does the future hold for Pakistan? The prognosis for violence and sectarian and partisan strife is clear, and it has been increasingly manifested in Salafi assaults on Pakistan’s Shiia communities and the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal and aligned religious parties, which have adopted an increasingly violent program against the Musharraf government and its allies. Violence has long been a part of Pakistan’s political culture, and Musharraf has sought generally only to compartmentalize it and push it towards the frontiers. This effort seems doomed to failure.
Musharraf has been an amazing survivor, but he seems close to fully spending his ninth and final life. And what will come after him? It’s hard to see the Pakistani military allowing a return to civilian rule. But it’s easy to envision the rise of a new military dictator.