Thursday, April 10, 2008

While the World Wasn’t Watching...

Pakistan Went Straight to Hell

Observers in the West, yours truly included, have been distracted by a series of shiny objects—Hillary! Obama! Tibet! Iraq!-- since Pakistan’s elections apparently put that country on the road to democracy by creating a parliamentary majority dominated by a coalition of the two main anti-Musharraf parties, the PPP and the PML-N.

While we were away, however, Benazir Bhutto’s widower and PPP co-chairman Asif Zardari has been working non-stop to remove his political rivals and solidify his place on top of the political heap—and make peace with Musharraf—at the expense of Pakistan’s democracy.

Zardari apparently sees himself as the rightful heir to the deal his wife had made with Washington—that the PPP would form a government after the election that would include Musharraf and his allies, exclude Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, and enjoy US support.

The United States has not been idle, of course. Once again the United States has found itself in the position of ostentatiously calling for democracy overseas, then energetically undermining it when the results don’t yield the outcome it desired.

At the end of March, National Security Advisor John Negroponte and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Boucher rushed to Pakistan on an unscheduled visit, to meet with the key political players and, presumably, insert America’s guiding hand in Pakistan’s politics.

US has assisted and enabled—if not guided—Zardari’s critical move to reach out to the MQM, the gangsterish party that controls Karachi and holds the key to Musharraf’s political survival.

MQM is responsible for the rioting and murder that convulsed the Karachi yesterday—and provided the first sign that Musharraf and the United States see a road out of their dilemma by fomenting a political crisis, probably with the help of Asif Zardari.

Zardari correctly sees virtually every politician and political force more popular than him as an obstacle and threat to his objective of riding a Musharraf/US alliance to political domination of Pakistan.

That puts a great deal on his plate because the removal of Pervez Musharraf is extremely popular—polling at about 70%--and Asif Zardari himself is not very popular man.

As a result, Zardari’s been working overtime to discredit and marginalize more popular figures like the PPP Old Guard and the lawyer’s movement, led by respected barrister—and PPP member--Aitzaz Ahsan,who is the touchstone for courage and integrity in the battle to democratize Pakistan.

At the same time, Zardari has reached out to anybody less popular than he is, a remarkable slate of despised figures including President Pervez Musharraf, the PML-Q party that the PPP and PML-N routed in the parliamentary elections, the murderous MQM—and the United States--to cobble together a ruling bloc.

At first, Zardari’s moves were almost laughably self-serving .

Despite a pledge to restore the pre-November 3 judiciary (that Musharraf had removed in order to get an unconstitutional second term as president while still in uniform), Zardari eagerly availed himself of the existing courts to get the outstanding corruption and murder charges (relating to highly plausible accusations that he had connived at the murder of his brother-in-law—and Benazir Bhutto’s brother!— black sheep radical politician Mir Murtaza Bhutto) against him dismissed.

Wiping the slate clean with the help of the Musharraf judiciary let the media ironically describe Zardari, the man universally known as “Mr. 10%” for his grafting ways, as “the cleanest man in Pakistan”—and removed the last legal obstacle to Zardari running for parliament in a by-election from his wife’s safe constituency, entering parliament, and becoming Prime Minister.

Zardari promoted a cringe-inducing cult of personality surrounding Shaheed (martyr) Benazir Bhutto while presenting himself as the ordained heir to her sacred nation-saving mission.

He presided over a meeting of the newly-elected PPP members of parliament and, instead of briefing them on the party’s platform for the upcoming session, orchestrated a performance in which Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, a senior PPP official who had once disrespected Zardari while the latter was in prison, now allowed himself to be seated in a chair before the puzzled assembly to recant and acknowledge Zardari was now “my leader”.

Zardari then delayed the calling of parliament to give him a chance to sideline Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the respected functionary who, as head of the PPP organization that contested the election, was both the constitutional and logical choice to be Prime Minister.

Instead, Zardari launched a whispering campaign against Fahim, accusing him of disloyally holding secret meetings with Musharraf—an accusation Fahim indignantly denied. The accusations reached a surreal pitch—and revealed Zardari’s anxiety about his legitimacy as Bhutto’s political heir—as Zardari’s creatures spread the allegation that Fahim had rushed off to meet Musharraf after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

Fahim, of course, had been at Benazir Bhutto’s side in the Land Rover when she was assassinated-- while Zardari was out of the country.

Zardari also addressed the threat from the lawyer’s movement led by Aitzaz Ahsan, flying in the face of history to dismiss the significance of the lawyer’s movement—which had stood up to Musharraf’s extra-legal maneuvers since March of 2007, gutted his popularity, and created the political crisis that forced him to allow Bhutto (and Zardari) and Sharif to return to Pakistan from exile to contest the elections.

Instead, Zardari claimed, the victory of democratic forces in Pakistan was the result of the martyrdom of his wife—and he dismissed lawyers as corrupt and self-serving.

Another meeting, this time of the PPP central committee, was transformed into a prolonged exhibition of Zardari’s pathological self-regard and tender pride as he discussed his resistance to reinstating the pre-November 3 judges as he had promised the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif:

Zardari said these were the same judges who had earlier taken oath under the PCO and validated the military rule. Referring to his jail life, a source quoted him as saying that he was let down by these judges, who had even refused to release him on parole to attend the funeral of his nephew. He said he was allowed only a two-hour parole despite Farooq H Naek's pleading before the same judges.

He said the then Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed had also refused him a parole. He termed the same judiciary biased, which he said was responsible for his eight years in jail. Party sources reported that Asif Ali Zardari was quite emotional while speaking on the judges' issue. One source said he talked of the restoration of the judges but linked it to a constitutional package. He said the party was interested in the independence of the judiciary and not in personalities.

A party leader said he was disappointed to hear what he termed the charge-sheet issued by the PPP co-chairperson against the deposed judges. According to him, almost 60 per cent of the co-chairman's speech was on Aitzaz Ahsan and the judges.

Zardari also went out of his way to widen a rift between himself and Aitzaz Ahsan.

Aitzaz Ahsan, who sought the restoration of the deposed judges, told the meeting that it would be in the interest of the party to get the judges restored.

Zardari, according to sources, came hard on the issue of the judges’ restoration. According to one source, Zardari snubbed the widely-respected lawyer leader and said he knew the worth of the judges whose restoration was being sought by the lawyers' community.

Zardari also purportedly claimed he feared a return to legal jeopardy for himself if the pre-November 3 judiciary was restored and perhaps decided to revisit the charges that the Musharraf judiciary had so complaisantly dismissed.

In my opinion, a more likely explanation for Zardari’s widely reported insistence on forgoing automatic restoration of the judiciary, replacing it with parliamentary review and control over judicial re-appointments, and under any and all scenarios implementing a “minus one” arrangement that would at the very least block the return of Supreme Court justice and national hero Iftikhar Chaudhry to his original eminence, is that Zardari desires a cowed and compliant judiciary that will not only decline to take the initiative in challenging the Musharraf presidency--it will also decline to dismiss the criminal cases that continue to hamstring Zardari’s main political rival, Nawaz Sharif.

After Amin Fahim capitulated and a more tractable PPP functionary, Yousaf Raza Gillani---regarded by many as merely a place-holder until Zardari entered parliament and became eligible for the PM slot-- had finally been elevated to the prime ministership, progressive Pakistani opinion was promptly horrified by a series of events.

Without consulting the coalition partners, Gillani called for and obtained a vote of confidence from Musharraf’s PML-Q—an indication that Zardari was engaged in covert dealings with the despised faction.

Zardari also unilaterally reached out to the MQM, a gangsterish political outfit that runs Karachi, has been an indispensable prop of Musharraf, and is despised by the PPP rank-and-file both for as status as the PPP’s bitter rival in Sindh and for its acts of mayhem and murder against PPP members.

Then Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, the very person who had groveled so gratifyingly before Zardari in the meeting of PPP parliamentarians and had been rewarded with the position of Minister of Defense in the new government, reportedly praised Musharraf as “a national asset”, apparently endorsing Musharraf as the indispensable ATM through which American aid must flow.

It became clear Zardari was assembling an alternative coalition of Musharraf allies against the day that Nawaz Sharif pulled the PML-N out of the coalition.

And it also became clear that PML-N withdrawal was inevitable because Zardari was prepared to break the bargain that had sealed the PPP-PML-N coalition: restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary within thirty days of the formation of the federal government, a move that would almost certainly involve in the removal of Musharraf and a decoupling from the United States on security matters.

If the PML-N withdrew from the coalition, Nawaz Sharif would become the logical focus of the anti-Zardari forces, which would probably include significant elements of the PPP old guard and supporters of the lawyer’s movement as well as his own party—in other words, the three most popular forces in the country.

Sharif—who perhaps had, with an excess of complacency, anticipated that Zardari’s venality and unpopularity would easily redound to the political benefit of the PML-N—is probably now calculating rather anxiously whether Zardari is going to try to neutralize him politically (Gillani’s most salient qualification as prime minister was perhaps that he had defeated Sharif in an election in the 1990s), legally (unlike Zardari, Sharif still has some legal vulnerabilities relating to his previous stint in power) or worse.

I’m not the only one who thinks Nawaz Sharif has to watch his back.

However, the most pressing priority for Musharraf and Zardari is discrediting the lawyers’ movement to restore the judiciary.

The lawyers have promised the embarrassment of renewed nationwide agitation—agitation that would force Zardari to take the profoundly unpopular position of standing with Musharraf against the lawyers--if the judiciary is not restored within thirty days of the formation of the coalition government, as per the Murree Declaration negotiated between Zardari and Sharif in March.

In an interesting illustration of what can happen to a vaguely worded agreement when bad faith is the order of the day, Nawaz Sharif believes that the 30 day clock began ticking when the new National Assembly was sworn in on March 17. Most people date the kickoff to March 25 , when the new prime minister was sworn in. But the PPP’s Rehman Malik, who has jurisdiction over the matter in his role as Adviser to the Prime Minister on Interior,doesn’t even pretend he’s not stalling: he says the clock starts when the cabinet is sworn in—which hasn’t happened yet.

April 16, April 24, whenever, the lawyers are already getting ready to hit the bricks again.

In this unsettled environment, with Musharraf, Zardari, and the PPP digging in to block the lawyers, a truly remarkable event occurred on April 8: Dr. Sher Afgan Niazi, the parliamentary affairs minister in the previous government responsible for some of the more tortured legal justification for Musharraf’s rule, was apparently attacked in Lahore by a gang of...lawyers.

Aitzaz Ahsan went to the scene and tried unsuccessfully to calm the crowd.

Instead, the mob pelted Sher Afgan with tomatoes and worse, invaded the ambulance that was trying to drive him away, threw away the ignition key, and pounded him with shoes and shattered the windows as Good Samaritans tried to push the ambulance down the street.

The old man’s ordeal was captured on TV cameras and broadcast to a horrified nation.

Afgan, previously a figure of amused contempt, attracted widespread pity.

As for the lawyers, it was claimed that they had forfeited their claim on the nation’s sympathy.

A mortified Aitzaz Ahsan announced his resignation as head of the Supreme Court Bar Association—the prestigious pulpit from which he had championed the cause of the pre-November 3 judiciary.

Sher Afghan, who was not seriously hurt, returned to his home town of Mianwali, which showered him with rose petals, burned tires on the main roads, blocked the train tracks, held a general strike, and trashed the law offices of his local opponents, all in his honor.

Sher Afghan proclaimed his undying loyalty to Musharraf as the man who brought democracy back to Pakistan and accused the PML-N and the fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami of orchestrating the attack.

Almost immediately suspicions of a government conspiracy began bubbling up.

The PML-N’s parliamentary leader, Makhdoom Javed Hashmi offered accusations of his own :

What happened with Dr Sher Afgan Niazi,it is condemnable, he said "My servants had recognized those who had mistreated Dr Sher Afgan Niazi. They are intelligence agencies personnel. This is all brain child of agencies, he added.

The pro-government Daily Times obliged conspiracy theorists with a ham-fisted editorial depicting the lawyers as an out-of-control creature of the media now ready to be poked back in its cage, while significantly praising the PPP:

The power that the lawyers’ movement felt was based on the aggression of the bars, but the courage of its leadership to challenge and threaten the court and government came from the profile they had acquired on the TV channels. (The channels tended to ignore the early manifestation of violence among the lawyers as a sop to a growing solidarity between the two.) After the 2008 elections, however unfortunately and incorrectly, most of the channels developed a consensus that the mandate of the people was not in favour of the parties that won but the restoration of the judges and the ouster of President Musharraf. The two mainstream parties registered this with a slight variation of response. The PMLN embraced the new situation completely and began to reap media dividends; the PPP felt that it was being pressured too much by the “countdowns” handed down by the lawyers and sought a middle ground.

Another pro-Musharraf outlet, the Pakistan Observer, eagerly entitled its editorial “Is this the Beginning of the End? “(for the lawyers’ movement, that is), opining:

All this shows that the situation was moving in the wrong direction and it is time that the lawyers’ movement and the issue of restoration of judges is brought to a swift closure. Advisor to Prime Minister on Interior Rehman Malik has already ordered an inquiry, which would fix the responsibility, but it is quite obvious that those behind the unfortunate incident were none else but black-coat wearing lawyers.

Propaganda this crude and arrogantly blatant has all the marks of the Pakistan intelligence services, so I’m inclined to agree with the people who see the attack on Sher Afgan as an initial salvo in the campaign to discredit the lawyers and keep Musharraf in power.

Commenters on Pakistan political comment boards pointed out that it didn’t make sense that the lawyer’s movement, which had showed admirable restraint over the last year in the face of tear gas and baton charges, somehow had lost its discipline at the moment of its greatest triumph.

Also, during this prolonged, agonizing, and televised incident only one policeman showed up, an indication that this incident was allowed to happen. The Punjab government, it was pointed out, is still in the hands of the pro-Musharraf PML-Q.

The drift of the accusations seems to be that the attack was orchestrated by pro-Musharraf elements to discredit the lawyer’s movement and give Musharraf (and, many posited, Zardari as his silent partner) a pretext for not heeding its demand to restore the pre-November 3 judiciary.

Aitzaz Ahsan subsequently decided that the beating of Sher Afgan had actually been a government provocation. He withdrew his resignation and described the chaos in Lahore at a press conference:

"I came to know about Sher Afgan incident on Tuesday evening through media. I rushed there even at the risk of my life. But no government functionary turned up. Police did not stop the demonstrators despite my request. I tried to talk through megaphone from balcony. Only 40 per cent lawyers were found present there and the remaining were some other people. I appealed to lawyers to disperse and they did so. But the other people remained there.

He further said "I asked the police officers present over there to call in more contingent of police but it was not done so. I asked police officers to call police van and bring it close to door so that Sher Afgan could be pulled out from there. But police did not do so. I asked the police officers to remove a plain clothed man but they told he was a policeman. I knew he was not policeman and was some terrorist.

When I brought out Sher Afgan then police disappeared. When I took Afgan inside van, we came to know driver of the van was not there. People in plain clothes were found involved in the acts of sabotage. My friends and I tried to rescue Dr Sher Afgan even at the risk of our lives. But all happened under a planned conspiracy. People in plain clothes subjected Dr Afgan to violence".


Things quickly got worse.

The theatrical roughing up of Sher Afghan by pretend “lawyers” was followed up by the genuine murder of real lawyers in Karachi by the MQM.

Downtown Karachi was brought to a standstill by a bizarre and bloody and much more serious incident—another “lawyers riot”—in this case “lawyers” affiliated with the MQM claiming they were attacked while peacefully but rather inexplicably protesting the insult to Sher Afgan, who hails from a distant town in Punjab, not Sindh.

The MQM “lawyers” retaliated by setting fire to an office building and killing five lawyers within. Subsequent rioting and arson paralyzed the heart of Karachi and claimed several more lives.

Pakistan’s News editorialized:

One is the strange absence of any administrative authority in Karachi...and Lahore, where police and authorities had hours to mobilize themselves and mount a rescue operation to release Dr Afgan and other hostages. Why did it become necessary for Aitzaz Ahsan to intervene? Why did police not use force when no party or group had owned the siege? Why were large parts of Karachi engulfed in flames after a minor clash between lawyers? Whose interests are being served by this chain of tragic events and who is the target? Likewise everyone must see who, if anyone, is benefiting from the turmoil.

The good news is, following the initial dismay of the Sher Afghan incident and Aitzaz Ahsan’s abrupt if temporary resignation, the legal community and educated opinion have closed ranks, repudiated claims that the lawyers’ movement is out of control, and pressed forward with the agenda of complete restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary.

The bad news is, these are times of extraordinary danger for the more progressive forces in Pakistan politics.

With the entry of the PPP into the government, international attention has turned away from Pakistan.

Musharraf has the opportunity to put paid to the lawyers’ movement to restore the judiciary with the right combination of violence, slander, American support, MQM terrorism, and political cover from Zardari.

After the shock of the Sher Afghan incident, Aitzaz Ahsan must be viewing his future with a combination of determination and deep disquiet.

Again, from The Post’s report on his press conference:

Aitzaz Ahsan said that he will contest by-elections from constituency NA-55, if Pakistan People's Party (PPP) issued him the ticket. He said that PPP and Asif Ali Zardari have taken bold steps but there is a hidden power that is intriguing against the democracy.

Dark, dark days, indeed.

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