ISLAMABAD Pakistan – Nadia Chaudhry’s hands trembled in the cold night air as she held a candle at a protest against Pakistan’s emergency rule, the government’s firing of judges and jailing of civil rights activists.
The demonstration was a first for the 23-year-old law student, who says she’s taking up a democracy torch that was dropped years ago.
“Demonstrations by people like me are not part of our society any more,” she said. “Before in Pakistan during Zia’s time there used to be demonstrations by people like me, students and others,” Chaudhry said, referring to resistance to 1980s military dictator President Gen. Zia-ul Haq.
Pakistan’s moderate, largely middle class civil society in recent years has been traumatized into silence by the country’s political chaos and a succession of martial laws. Instead, protests had been dominated by angry Islamic fundamentalists ripping down placards that pictured women, burning music and video discs, and shouting slogans demanding Islamic law.
That started to change last March. Pakistan’s president and military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf sacked the nation’s chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, sparking a protest by lawyers. The Supreme Court later forced Musharraf to reinstate the justice, but the seeds of dissent did not go away.
Today’s demonstrations aren’t driven by religious zealots, but instead “by people who talk only of rule of law and democracy,” says human rights activist and columnist I.A. Rahman. “From the beginning in March with the lawyers’ agitation, this acquired the distinction as a secular movement.”
Since March, protests have grown from the lawyers to include physicians, media personalities, university professors and students.
“We are all educated, professionals. We all suffer when there is no merit, no transparency, no rule of law,” said Dr. Saddiq Abbasi of the Pakistan Medical Association. “We all had a hope that as long as there was an independent judiciary we can claim our rights.”
Demonstrations escalated after Nov. 3 when Musharraf imposed emergency rule.
Army chief of staff at the time, Musharraf declared the emergency in order to sack Supreme Court judges. The court had become increasingly independent and appeared ready to rule that his election as president violated the constitution.
Musharraf has since rewritten parts of the constitution, giving his hand-picked judges the right to dismiss lawyers and installing a Supreme Court loyal to him. He has promised to lift the emergency rule and hold general elections on Jan. 8.
Almost daily protests throughout Pakistan have called for an election boycott to press for restoration of the judiciary. The largest political parties, while participating in elections, are warning of widespread vote-rigging by Musharraf.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking this week to the Women’s Foreign Policy Group in Washington, said the United States has been urging Pakistan’s political parties to participate in elections.
Moderates must take part “to hopefully help Pakistan move yet a step further away from extremism because this is a country that was very much has had very deep extremist elements within it,” Rice said.
But Abbasi said protesters feel betrayed that the West, which should be its natural ally, has not stood with them in their demand for rule of law in Pakistan through a restored, independent judiciary prior to the elections.
“The mullahs (religious clerics) are the ones most aligned with the regime. From day one of the MMA (an alliance of six religious parties) have been supporting Musharraf,” said Abbasi.
The Islamic alliance’s biggest party, Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, was key to Musharraf’s election as president. The party also has the largest number of religious schools in the northwest frontier regions, a haven for Taliban supporters. It was in these schools that many of the Afghan Taliban leadership received religious instruction.
For the last five years a time when the Taliban grew stronger the religious alliance was the ruling provincial government in Pakistan’s North West Frontier province, on the Afghanistan border.
A former U.S. official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition he not be identified, said the Bush administration aligns with Musharraf not only because he’s supported U.S. anti-terror policies but because officials don’t want “to find themselves dealing with an entirely new cast of characters in Islamabad at the end of eight tough years.”
Yet Dr. Ijaz Gilani, who heads Pakistan Gallup, an affiliate of Gallup International, says surveys in cities and villages shows a growing dismay among Pakistanis toward the Musharraf government.
A poll released this week by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. government-sponsored group, indicated 60 percent of Pakistanis disapprove of the job Musharraf is doing. The finding that could foretell trouble for his party in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The poll said 83 percent of Pakistanis oppose emergency rule, and most supported the ongoing demonstrations. The protests often are small, only in the dozens or hundreds, but continuous.
“Pakistan’s (demonstrating) citizens admittedly are relatively small in number yet huge in impact, commitment, conviction and moral legitimacy, have occupied public space and are leading Pakistan’s first-ever movement politics in the age of the information revolution,” said Nasim Zehra, a security analyst and columnist.
Internet-savvy students and professors sidestepped mainstream and government-controlled news by setting up Web sites and blogs to encourage students to demonstrate. Web sites spread the word about demonstrations, urge participation, and report on students and professors arrested or charged.
Cell phone text messages announce the location of demonstrations. Each message ends with the same directive: “Pass it on.”
Educated Pakistanis now “are not only conscious of their rights but are ready and willing to take to the streets to fight for them,” said Ayesha Jalal, an expert on South Asia at Tufts University.Top