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The Martians Take Islamabad

Civil society, intelligentsia and Black Coats stand up to Musharraf; Benazir, the US give him tacit support. Will Pakistan's night be long?

The Martians Take Islamabad
The Martians Take Islamabad
It's Friday, November 2, and we are still more than 24 hours away from watching President Pervez Musharraf cast aside his mask to reveal to his people what he has always been—an incorrigible despot deeply in love with himself. But the exercise to impose Emergency is already afoot furtively. I come to know about it through my neighbourhood cable TV operator. "Bibi, what's happening?" he asks me. Hours earlier, he says, army personnel had come over, switched off the transmission, hung around for two hours before they restored the cable network and left. In this country, I know, powers and privileges flowing from the Constitution can be switched on and off as easily as I do my television.

Presumably, the dress rehearsal for imposing Emergency is under way elsewhere in the city as well. For, I begin receiving phone calls from friends anxious to check the veracity of rumours about the impending Emergency. The following morning, November 3, these stray rumours have become an unstoppable tide, acquiring the grimness of a ferocious truth. Phones ring incessantly, smses fly around furiously. Analyst and author Ayeshya Siddiqa is downcast. Haven't we been expecting this for many months now, I remark to her insouciantly.

Late afternoon, the TV screen goes blank. Your choices have been obliterated in a jiffy, you now only enjoy the right of watching ptv, the state-run channel. It's the symbol of what life is to be in the months to come; of how your choices will be manipulated and circumscribed. The announcement comes at 6 pm: the chief of army staff (COAS), General Pervez Musharraf, has imposed Emergency, suspended the Constitution, and promulgated a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO).

It isn't Emergency but martial law, people tell each other over the phone. They have their reasons: the PCO has been signed by Musharraf as COAS, not President; the provision of Emergency can be invoked and implemented only under the Constitution. But the Constitution, including the Emergency provision, has been put in abeyance, so what you logically have is martial law (read Musharraf's second coup). But, again, it's martial law Musharraf style—the Parliament will exist, so will provincial assemblies, the prime minister and four chief ministers in the provinces will retain their offices.

Indeed, in this country the Constitution is changed as swiftly and whimsically as you and I surf our TV channels.

In the Supreme Court, though, a handful of honourable men think otherwise. As security forces throw an impregnable cordon around the building, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and a handful of judges gather together. They shouldn't have been there because it is a Saturday, their holiday. They know Musharraf has imposed Emergency not to counter terrorism, but to abort the possibility of the Supreme Court delivering a verdict disqualifying him as president. They issue a judicial restraining order, striking down the PCO and declaring the state of emergency illegal. This was to be their last courageous riposte to Musharraf's brazen attempt to subvert the Constitution; their last commendable effort to teach the nation the virtues of opposing what is unjust and unlawful. The judges are packed off to their homes and placed under house arrest.

And justice for none? Abdul Hameed Dogar being sworn in as the new chief justice

But, obviously, the judicial order has no restraining influence on the executive. With the Constitution suspended, judges countrywide are required to take an oath of allegiance to the PCO. Those who won't, forfeit their right to sit on the bench. Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar is sworn in as the new chief justice. Most Supreme Court judges demonstrate steadfast resolve: 13 out of 17 refuse to take oath. It's a minority of high court judges the executive manages to wean away: only 13 out of 31 judges in Punjab, four out of 31 judges in Sindh, and seven out of 13 judges in the nwfp agree to take oath. In Balochistan, though, all five judges take Musharraf's side.

Lawyers protesting outside the Lahore high court being dragged away

As night turns to morning, and the nation mulls its fate, the state machinery swings into unrelenting action. Nearly 1,500 lawyers are held in Lahore alone, hundreds of civil rights activists and politicians arrested countrywide. The only political luminary still walking free is Pakistan People's Party leader and former PM Benazir Bhutto. Also detained is Human Rights Commission chairman Asma Jehangir who, minutes before her detention, manages to send out a message: "Those whom Musharraf has arrested are progressive, secular-minded people, while terrorists are offered negotiations and ceasefire. Musharraf has to be taken out of the equation and a government of national reconciliation put in place backed by the military. Short of this, there is no realistic solution. Although there's no guarantee that even this will work."

On Monday, the Karachi Stock Exchange (KSE) plunges by 635 points—the single largest decline in the exchange's history—prompting investors to call it a Black Monday. On the same day, the Supreme Court judges want to demonstrate their defiance by driving to their chambers. They discover they have been locked inside their homes. On Monday evening, Chaudhry's statement is read out. After providing the reasons why a seven-member bench felt compelled to issue a restraining order, his statement notes its implications, "Any action by the government after the passing of this order is illegal, including the detention of lawyers and members of civil society whose only sin is that they opposed the Emergency and the PCO." The statement further adds, "This (restraining) order has been passed and those who defy it, defy the Constitution. I and all the judges of the Supreme Court were exercising our jurisdiction in accordance with the law and constitution and are determined to do so in the future." True, Chaudhry's order has no legal validity under the PCO, but he has irreversibly undermined the Musharraf regime's legitimacy.

The battle against Musharraf, however, continues in the print media. Though the PCO has incorporated a code for the media—for instance, they can't criticise the president, the prime minister, or the army—it remains defiant, not concealing where its sympathy lies. Journalists in Islamabad are boycotting official functions. Under martial law, people usually devise their own method to access information. Islamabad and other cities in Pakistan have seen the demand for dish antennas skyrocketing, enabling people to access private TV channels most of which are located offshore. The News was right when it said, "Pakistan entered a new age of darkness. The two institutions, the judiciary and the media, which in recent months have given people most cause for cheer, have been the most severely targeted in President Musharraf's late night (Nov 3) speech, following the issuing of the PCO." Just about no one believes that the Emergency has been imposed to combat Islamic militants (see Ayesha Siddiqa's column).

Opposition activists protest in Islamabad

So, where does Pakistan go from here? Will the people rise to resist Musharraf? Most analysts agree about the disenchantment against him running deep. As former senator Shafqat Mahmood says, "By imposing what amounts to a martial law, Musharraf has pitched himself, and by extension the army, against all civil and legal institutions of the country. He has also alienated what remained of his support among the intelligentsia and civil society. This darkness at high noon can't last. The judges, by not taking oath, the lawyers and the civil society by resisting, have already shown the way. The media is standing by them. This is one battle the generals are sure to lose."

Dumbstruck Pakistanis watch the televised speech of Musharraf declaring Emergency

A political movement, however, can succeed only under the guidance of political leaders who can deploy their party apparatus to articulate the popular disenchanment. But Pakistan's political class remains divided. Former PM Nawaz Sharif remains in exile; it's difficult for him to galvanise the party apparatus to exploit the discontent. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the umbrella grouping of religious parties, remains fractious, its support base is limited, and its leaders still suspected of playing footsie with Musharraf (see Nawaz Sharif interview).

Indeed, most analysts feel it is only Benazir Bhutto who can lead the resistance against Musharraf, her party alone has the capacity to launch a mass movement. But will she sever ties with Musharraf? (See box above.) Noted The Nation, "PPP Chairperson Benazir Bhutto remains non-committal, except for paying lip service by terming the imposition of emergency and PCO 'yet another martial law' and demanding the reversal of the decision. Despite the demand from other opposition parties to launch a joint struggle for the restoration of democracy, she has not so far given any call to her own party workers." But these are early days, she could well join the movement against Musharraf.

The other factor in the political game are the international players, particularly the United States. The Netherlands was quick to announce suspension of aid; the Pentagon cancelled defence talks with Pakistan. The US ambassador in Islamabad, Anne W. Patterson, barged into the Chief Election Commissioner's office demanding that elections be held on schedule and that election observers from her country would be on the ground by November 20.

All this, however, leaves former isi chief Gen (retd) Asad Durrani unimpressed. He told Outlook, "The US will continue to make necessary noises. Nothing more than that will happen. Musharraf still remains their best bet." Agrees columnist Ayaz Amir, "For Americans, Musharraf is no axis of evil. Their public statement shows that they aren't happy with Musharraf as he is becoming a liability for them. But ditching him right now will be difficult for them."

Others think Pakistan in turmoil suits America. Among them is Shireen Mazari, director general, Institute of Strategic Studies. "The US stands to benefit tremendously," she says, "because it may demand costly quid pro quos for toning down its criticism of Emergency. External actors seek a weak and compliant Muslim state." Mazari feels the American policy will be twofold: weaken the army, and sow the seeds of discord not only in the civil society but also in its relationship with the army. It'll then leverage a weak state to its own advantage.

There's also the other possibility of a palace coup, a weary and wary army disposing of Musharraf and saving the institution from disrepute and infamy. This hope of some perhaps inspired them to float the rumour earlier this week that Musharraf had been placed under house arrest. Gen Durrani, though, thinks a palace coup is unlikely in the immediate future. "Much depends on how the ground situation evolves," he says. "Nobody would want to anticipate a groundswell against Musharraf, particularly because people don't have much hope from the political parties."

For the moment, though, it is the Black Coats who continue to resist Musharraf. Inspiring them is Chaudhry who, in a telephonic address to the Islamabad Bar Association, called upon lawyers to defy baton-wielding police and protest until Musharraf is forced to lift the Emergency. "The time for sacrifice has come," he said, "to rise for the supremacy of the Constitution." Otherwise, Pakistan will witness what Durrani predicts: bomb blasts and violence, tearing its soul to shreds.

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