By Beena Sarwar | June 13, 2007 : Boston Globe
GIVEN THAT Washington's enemy number one is Islamic militancy, one would expect America to support the emergence of a mass secular movement in Pakistan. But what if the movement is pitted against the country's president and army chief who is Washington's key ally in the war on terror?
President General Pervez Musharraf's suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhry in March on charges of misuse of authority unexpectedly sparked widespread agitation. Lawyers led the charge, holding that Musharraf has no constitutional authority to suspend Choudhry. Braving police batons, arrests and tear gas, they have held public demonstrations with a one-point agenda: Reinstate the chief justice. Lawyers' black coats have become a symbol of the struggle between the military and the Constitution. They have been joined by the major political parties.
Pakistan's military has long called the shots in the country's politics, behind doors or in the open -- usually with Washington's support. Such support propped up the previous military dictator, President General Ziaul Haq, who curbed political dissent through torture, imprisonment, floggings, and executions.
Since 9/11, Washington has supported Musharraf, who heads Pakistan as a front-line state in the war on terror.
The Pakistani establishment has made a U-turn away from its previous policy of supporting Islamic holy warriors. Western policy makers see this as necessary in order to prevent Pakistan from falling into the arms of fundamentalists. The war on terror provides the cover for a spate of enforced "disappearances." Secret agencies selectively target journalists and political workers. Over the last few months, Washington has been frustrated at Musharraf's perceived ineffectiveness at delivering 'the goods' in this war, as well as media speculation that Musharraf may not be indispensable and that his withdrawal or removal from power will not necessarily deliver Pakistan to fundamentalists.
There is some truth in these speculations. Pakistanis, contrary to the image built up by politicians and the media, are a pluralistic lot. We have traditionally voted for secular or nationalist, not religious or political, parties. But during the 2002 elections, the Musharraf regime prevented the heads of the two major political parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, from contesting. Into the vacuum jumped religious parties. They cobbled together governments in the two western provinces bordering Afghanistan. Even so, they polled no more than 13 percent of the total votes.
The support for the chief justice is building into a popular mass movement that has nothing to do with religion. This must be encouraged, at a juncture that many feel is a defining moment in Pakistan's history.
However, rattled by the growing dissent and media coverage of the protests, the Musharraf regime is resorting to ham-handed and openly repressive tactics reminiscent of the Zia era.
These include blocking the news transmission of some independent television channels and allowing the state broadcasting authority to shut down television stations. These controls were retracted after a week of protests by journalists and foreign critics. On May 12, the administration allowed armed workers of a political party allied to the government to block Choudhry's arrival in Karachi to address the bar association. Almost 50 people were killed but Musharraf referred to it as the "political activity of a political party."
Pakistan has undergone some positive changes during Musharraf's eight years in power. The high economic growth rate is second only to China but with high inflation and unemployment rates, the gap between rich and poor has increased. The US Department of State still asserts that General Musharraf has not yet reached the "end of his line," but that line, as Islamabad-based columnist Farrukh Saleem argues, "now forks out either to democracy or repression (no third choice)."
The general elections scheduled for later this year, if held, will be meaningless if Bhutto and Sharif are again prevented from contesting, or if Musharraf is removed from the helm of affairs only to be replaced by another military general running the show.
The struggle for a pluralistic, secular Pakistan must be supported and allowed to develop. The political process must be allowed to continue, and the people of Pakistan allowed to forge their own destiny, without interference.
Beena Sarwar is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.