Martial Lawyers

Why are “ordinary” Pakistanis sitting out the anti-Musharraf protests?

Lawer protests in Islamabad. Click image to expand.
A lawyer at an anti-government demonstration in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—A pack of protesting lawyers marched past Zulfiqar’s juice stand two or three times on Tuesday morning, but Zulfiqar kept on squeezing fruit. The procession marked the second day of lawyer-led agitation against President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to impose a state of emergency in Pakistan. Formally attired lawyers wound through the narrow alleys of an Islamabad bazaar, chanting slogans against Musharraf and the army. Police in riot gear surrounded the bazaar to prevent the protest from spilling into the streets. As the lawyers paraded past him, Zulfiqar, a skinny thirtysomething man with rotting teeth, took a halved pomegranate, smashed it onto a crude emulsifier, and made another juice for a paying customer. He said the lawyers never stopped to ask him to participate, so he never stopped working. Zulfiqar pointed to his stomach and mouth, and added in Urdu, “I need to make money to feed my family.”

Earlier this year, Pakistani lawyers led a successful movement against Musharraf’s decision to suspend the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. Their movement attracted worldwide attention and, in July, succeeded in restoring Chaudhry to his post. Now they want to lead a revolution against Musharraf and the army. Can they triumph once again?

This time around, the lawyers are handicapped by the fact that most of their leaders are in jail. On Saturday night, Aitzaz Ahsan, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, called a hurried press conference at his home. He sat at an oak desk, rows of legal books stacked on shelves behind him and more than a dozen microphones crowded in front of his face. Musharraf, he said, had acted “like a spoiled child,” and while clinging to power at all costs had “ruined and decimated every value in which civil society—and civilized, liberal nations—thrive.” One of Ahsan’s assistants interrupted the press conference to say that the police were waiting outside to arrest him. The bar association president turned to the media and promised, “The lawyers of Pakistan will not allow independent judges to be removed from their offices.” Shortly afterward, Ahsan, who was wearing a gray suit with a striped tie, excused himself to change his clothes. “I should put on a shalwar kameez before I go to jail,” he said. A few minutes later, police stuffed Ahsan into a paddy wagon and took him to prison.

Meanwhile, on Saturday night in Lahore, police placed Asma Jahangir, a leading human rights lawyer, under house arrest. The following morning, Musharraf’s storm troopers continued their crackdown on political and legal activists when they raided the offices of Jahangir’s organization, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. (As of Wednesday, more than 1,700 lawyers and politicians had been arrested in Punjab alone—just one of Pakistan’s four provinces.) Jahangir’s and Ahsan’s detentions have been extremely significant because the anti-Musharraf movement is, at least for now, decapitated. Ahsan, who is also a senior member of Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, might have been able to fuse the agendas of the lawyers and the political parties. And Jahangir could have done something similar between the lawyers and civil-society groups.

Instead, even the lawyers seem frazzled and disjointed. Every time I have called a friend who is a member of the Supreme Court Bar Association, he sounds out of breath. “I am concealing myself,” he told me yesterday, adding that he had slept somewhere different every night since the emergency began. On Monday, the lawyers in Lahore chucked rocks at police and were tear-gassed in response; on Tuesday, the lawyers in Islamabad showed no interest in clashing with police—or in reaching out to merchants to expand their movement. When the rally finished, I asked Shakeel Mian, a 33-year-old attorney, why they were holding back. Just wait, he said, “In the beginning of a movement, there are impediments. Musharraf, you know, has unbridled powers and authority.” In other words, the lawyers needed to draft a strategy before they ran headlong into policemen swinging batons, or worse, paramilitary forces firing bullets. “We are facing a very turbulent time in Pakistan’s history. But we will be marching to the president’s house and the parliament building very soon.”

Some observers worry that a headless and directionless lawyers’ movement could actually do more harm than good. Hamid Mir, a columnist for the Urdu-language daily Jang and a TV anchor on the private station GEO (which Musharraf has yanked off the air), said: “People are looking to come out in the roads, but they want leaders. A leaderless movement in Pakistan may head toward anarchy.” Mir showed me several threatening e-mails he had received in the last few days from intelligence agents and politicians from pro-Musharraf parties. One warned Mir’s boss, the owner of GEO, not to air anything that criticized the Pakistani army. The e-mail said that those who engaged in “anti-Pakistan” propaganda would be “hunted down like rats.”

In the English portion of his speech to the nation on Saturday night, Musharraf explained that Pakistan was “on the verge of destabilization,” which he cited as the main reason for decreeing a state of emergency. In the Urdu portion, he said that “terrorism and extremism had reached extreme levels” and that an overeager Supreme Court was wreaking havoc on the country. But since then, he has ignored the Taliban and al-Qaida outposts along the border with Afghanistan. In fact, in South Waziristan earlier this week, Musharraf signed another so-called “peace treaty” with the Taliban; the Taliban returned 213 captured army soldiers, while the government handed back 28 terrorists. Musharraf pledged to withdraw the army from the area, and the Taliban promised not to ambush any army convoys in the meantime (though they refrained from promising not to launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan). “Ironically the President (who has lost his marbles) said that he had to clamp down on the press and the judiciary to curb terrorism,” wrote Asma Jahangir, in an e-mail she circulated while under house arrest on Sunday. “Those he has arrested are progressive, secular minded people while the terrorists are offered negotiations and ceasefires.”

After the lawyers’ rally on Tuesday, I walked across the sidewalk from Zulfiqar’s juice stand and spoke with a 40-year-old man named Mohammad Javed. Javed sat behind a computer, which he uses to type legal documents for the lawyers. (The Islamabad Bar Association office is nearby.) But he, too, had just sat and watched as the lawyers marched by. “My heart is with the protesters, and we should chant together. But I am afraid. My family could be arrested,” Javed said. “Unless the entire nation, including the common people, comes out in the streets, nothing will happen.”