New Political Hero of Pakistan

Justice and the general
Aug 27th 2007: From

Our correspondent meets Ms Bhutto's best advocate

Monday: SOMETHING is eating Aitzaz Ahsan. He is a new star, a hero of a trampled-upon democracy—the most popular man in Pakistan, some say. With an election looming, Mr Ahsan, a lawyer and member of the opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP), should be pitching for greatness. So why, sitting in his charmingly chaotic chambers in Lahore, amid stacks of paper smelling faintly of mildew in the monsoon air, does Mr Ahsan look so glum?

First, some background. Mr Ahsan acted for Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, in a legal stand-off with General Pervez Musharraf that may have changed Pakistani history. In March General Musharraf tried to sack Mr Chaudhry. It seems he wanted a pliable top judge, which Mr Chaudhry, a vain and stubborn man, was not. But, in an act of civilian defiance previously unknown in Pakistan, Mr Chaudhry refused to go.

Cheering up slightly, Mr Ahsan proffers, unrequested, a few photographs of the scenes that ensued. After filing a challenge to his marching orders in the Supreme Court, Mr Chaudhry went on a grand tour. That is, he accepted invitations to address various of the country's bar associations. For this was not—you understand—a political protest.

Nonetheless, Mr Ahsan made sure that Mr Chaudhry visited, on the same day, every bar association to be found along Pakistan's main roads. In a twenty-hour crawl from Islamabad to Lahore—ostensibly to address bar associations en route – over 100,000 people turned out to cheer Mr Chaudhry.

Mr Ahsan displays photographs of that day. The chief justice—or "CJ", as Pakistanis call him—is barely visible behind a wind-screen strewn with pink rose-petals. A few lawyers, in their funereal uniform of black jacket, black tie and white shirt, dance upon his car's bonnet. A throng of thousands presses in from the sides, waving Pakistani flags, PPP flags, the flags of all Pakistan's put-upon political parties.

Mr Ahsan suffered that day. He says he lost 8 pounds (3.5 kg) in sweat, after the car's air-conditioner became choked with petals. Yet he looks well on it—in a chiselled photo of himself superimposed upon another of the flag-waving throng, using a dreamscape technique popular in Communist regimes and Bollywood.

The photo shows Mr Ahsan microphone in hand, denouncing General Musharraf's rule. And indeed, it was he who took the CJ's battle to the masses. Mr Chaudhry, his lawyer concedes, is not much of a public speaker. Mr Ahsan is. And for this reason alone, no one won richer congratulations than he last month when the CJ was reinstated by his peers. So why the long face, Mr Ahsan?

For one, rather like Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) in the film Gladiator, Mr Ahsan may have made himself a little too popular for his caesar's liking. His caesar is Benazir Bhutto, the PPP's leader, a former prime minister and the exiled daughter of the party's martyred former leader, Zulfiqar Ali.

Well, that is the conjecture, widely-believed in Pakistan. What is certain, however, is that even as Mr Ahsan was denouncing the "dictatorship" of General Musharraf, Ms Bhutto was negotiating a power-sharing deal with him.

Here is a glory of Pakistani politics. Even during two stints at the helm of Pakistan, Ms Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan's biggest and most liberal party, was willing to co-operate with the generals who man its guns. Now marooned, a fugitive in Dubai for almost a decade, she has looked ready to compromise again—if General Musharraf would only let her clamber back on-board.

America and Britain, important allies of the general, like the look of this accord. They want General Musharraf to remain in charge, at a time of Islamist strife in Pakistan. But they also want him to have more plausibly democratic and liberal support. That is to say, Ms Bhutto.

And here is another glory. Ms Bhutto, educated at Harvard and Oxford, sells herself as a die-hard liberal. And no doubt, in her personal beliefs, she is. Yet most liberal—which is to say, Westernised—Pakistanis, who mostly vote PPP, nonetheless grimace to hear her name.

There is nothing liberal about Ms Bhutto's running of her party, which she lords over like the Sindhi feudal leader that she is. During her eight years of absence from Pakistan, it has fallen into decline. Yet she has refused to countenance handing power to another leader.

Nor did Ms Bhutto's performance in power do much to inspire confidence. Even enemies of General Musharraf—of whom there are now many in Pakistan—tend not to demur when he accuses her of having looted the country.

Yet the problem for many liberal Pakistanis is the other guy—Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's other exiled ex-prime-minister. As leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League party (Nawaz), Mr Sharif presided over regimes that were about as corrupt as Ms Bhutto's, and more vindictive.

On his watch, dissidents were locked up and beaten. At the time that Mr Sharif was removed by General Musharraf in a coup, in 1999, he was trying to introduce sharia law—of which he was to be the final arbiter.

Now both Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif are contemplating returning to Pakistan. And General Musharraf is looking weaker by the day—not least because of the judgements that the CJ has been dishing out. Last week, for example, he decreed that Mr Sharif was free to return home from exile, though General Musharraf had said he was not.

If Mr Sharif does return—and he says that he will do so within days—Ms Bhutto might quickly follow him. There might then be no deal between herself and General Musharraf. Instead, there will be more showers of pink petals and heady talk of democracy restored. That would be good for Pakistan, most of its inhabitants agree. But Mr Ahsan will not be alone in his discomfort.


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