The electric, worrisome and meandering Long March in Pakistan

NYT report on Long March highlights the electrifying atmosphere in Islamabad yesterday:

The crowd, including an unusual number of women for this Muslim country, along with families and members of small political parties, continued to swell after midnight, waiting in a festive atmosphere for the main speakers to arrive by bus and plane from around the country.

Mr. Sharif showed solidarity with the lawyers, appearing on the stage with by his party’s activists at 2:30 a.m. Saturday to address the demonstrators. Mr. Sharif said there should be a process of public accountability for Mr. Musharraf, and he should not be granted a safe exit. In recent weeks, Mr. Sharif has repeatedly called for the impeachment of Mr. Musharraf.

Aitzaz Ahsan, the leader of the lawyers’ movement, who drove in a caravan of cars for three days from Lahore, also arrived after midnight as local television channels continued to show the event. At an earlier stop, 60 miles outside the capital, Mr. Ahsan said: “We are out in the streets to save Pakistan. We want social justice; we want political justice and constitutional justice.”

An activist from Islamabad writes:

We are today passing through blurred times. Imagine the perplexity of the situation. The former military hawks (like Hamid Gul, Aslam Baig, and countless others) are now speaking the tongue of democrates. Jamaat Islami is struggling for the rule of law. The groups who boycoted the last election have monoplized the interpretation of the election mandate and will of the people.

The last day Long March was one of its vivid manifestations. As I live in Islamabad, I got the opportunity to observe the March. It was predominantly Jamaat Islami show. After a long time, I heard slogans and (military) songs which I was used to listen in my youth in Zia’s era. Correct, this aspect of March was not much highlighted in the mainstream (free,corporate) media. … So we need to think twice and thrice before forming any rigid position on the issues we are facing today.

Daily Times rather dispassioantely looks into the Long March:

Despite Aitzaz Ahsan’s histrionics, one shouldn’t carry the analogy of Mao Tse Tung’s Long March too far because in it only a fraction of the marchers managed to survive. But the lawyers’ growing political baggage is making the original “legalistic” camel lurch a little. Some observers of the lawyers’ passage in Lahore say the Long March was “hijacked” by the PMLN and its leader Mr Nawaz Sharif who used the occasion at Azadi Chowk at the Minar-e Pakistan in Lahore to whip up his by-election campaign too. The public meeting was a PMLN success. What swelled the crowd was the “bandobast” for the fiery speech that Mr Sharif made on that occasion. The lawyers probably wouldn’t have wanted it, but the Long March in Punjab helped in rounding up support for PMLN in the forthcoming by-elections. It was remarked that by facilitating the chief justice the party had “established that it is the real force behind the lawyers’ movement”; the additional benefit was that it “successfully used the lawyers’ long march and the judges’ reinstatement issue to mobilise its workers for the coming by-elections in Lahore”. Thursday evening’s reception for the chief justice was organised at the venue that falls in the National Assembly (NA) constituencies NA-119 and NA-123 where Nawaz Sharif and Hamza Shehbaz are contesting the elections. Mr Sharif actually told the crowds that he needed their help in the by-polls campaigning because he was too busy campaigning for the lawyers. The deposed chief justice didn’t mind because he was getting a political boost from the occasion, but quite clearly he was projected as part of the developing polarity in the system. The lawyers Mr Sharif is boosting make no bones about their opposition to the PPP government which wants to modify the original lawyers’ demand in order to retain the PCO-2007 judges along with the PCO-2000 ones.

It is interesting that only one TV channel on Thursday dared to say that the lawyers’ movement was thin on the ground and ran the risk of being overrun by the country’s dangerously split politics. Meanwhile, the PPP was ambivalent as ever, now putting obstacles in the way of the lawyers’ march on Islamabad, now removing them and then partially retaining them. But despite this ambivalence and overt defence of the right to protest peacefully, the PPP seems determined not to give way and accept Mr Aitzaz Ahsan’s rough and ready formula of storming the citadel of the current judges and leading them out by the ear and replacing them with the old deposed ones.

If the lawyers were thin on the ground in Lahore, it is understandable. The weather is unbearably hot and the legal profession, despite its enviable district-based organisation, is spread all over Pakistan. They have to travel long distances and not all of them have air-conditioned transport. They do have “civil society” support, but this tends to be sporadic if it is not buttressed by the cadres of a political party. In Lahore on Wednesday, these cadres were more visible than civil society activists and they carried the identity markers of secular and religious parties alike and did not look like peace-loving citizens at all times. In Punjab the government is supportive and that ensures that there won’t be any trouble, but in Islamabad, with the diplomats already expressing their jitters, it can be touch and go.

The rank and file of the lawyers say they are supposed to remain gathered around the parliament in Islamabad till the judges are restored the way they want, but they have no idea how long they are prepared to stick it out. The government is making a great show of “looking after” them. The TV channels even showed the mass open-air latrines where the lawyers may relieve themselves in case they prolong their stay. The digging of the mass latrines also indicates that the government is ready to endure the lawyers’ siege if it is prolonged. But the weather is not good and tempers can flare and get out of control, especially when the APDM factions are already there to lend a helping hand.

After more than a year, the lawyers’ movement has meandered and changed from a peaceful protest to an aggressive force that can take on political baggage if this baggage promotes its campaign for the “independence of the judiciary”. The TV channels, hitting back at President Pervez Musharraf for what he did to them, have built up the lawyers and are now helping maintain the momentum through continuous coverage.

In the face of so much pressure, however, Mr Asif Zardari is like the smiling Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, here now, gone again. He does not look like a worried man at all, seemingly convinced that the storm will pass and stability will return soon. Indeed, his confidence is reflected in the simple way in which he has increased the strength of the Supreme Court from 17 to 29 by tagging a clause to the Finance Bill.

This makes his intentions abundantly clear. The old judges will return but the new judges will stay, however this is accomplished. *

Also published at Pak Tea House

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