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People-Politics in Pakistan: Who is Protesting and Who Is Not

Posted on November 16, 2007
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Pakistanis Abroad, Photo of the Day, Politics, Society
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Adil Najam

I have been traveling nearly non-stop over the last month, and events in Pakistan are headline news everywhere. More than that everyone is asking questions about Pakistan. An immigration official in Baku, Azerbaijan, asked me (2 weeks before the emergency) how long Musharraf will survive? A hotel receptionist in Musqat, Oman, asked more politely if “all is well in your country?” (one week before the emergency). In Pakistan (just days before the emergency) the question was more like “What is America planning for Pakistan?” A shop-keeper in Trondheim, Norway, asked (one day before the emergency) wondered if “Benazir will solve Pakistan’s problems?” And my driver in Cairo, Egypt, asked yesterday “Has Musharraf gone mad?”

You have to be impressed by how much ordinary people around the world know about Pakistan. But also sad that this is what they are thinking when they think Pakistan.



I do not think I have been able to respond to any of them satisfactorily. Politics in Pakistan is way too complex, even for us Pakistanis.

But to each I have said, in different ways, that the real story in Pakistan is not about Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The real story is about Pakistanis demanding democracy. The reason the general has had to use ever increasing pressure and more draconian measures is precisely because the people who want democracy are just not giving up. As we have said before, here is a democratic society trapped in an undemocratic state. This is a moment to be proud of Pakistanis. The failure here is not of Pakistan. It is of Gen. Pervez Musharraf (and he wrote his own indictment in his ‘emergency’ speech).

And this is what is most heartening. In response to a journalists question yesterday, I elaborated on something I have been saying already (here, here and here):

…this is a moment of great pride for Pakistanis. How can you not be proud of your people when ordinary citizens – lawyers, journalists, students – come out on he streets ready to be beaten up and put in jail… knowing that they will be crushed and yet demanding democracy…. this is NOT Pakistan’s failure… this is a moment of success for Pakistan’s people… the reason that the military government has been forced to apply ever greater force and every more draconian measures is simply because the democracy forces in the country (the lawyers, the students and journalists… unfortunately not the politicians as much) are simply unwilling to bow down. In the past people used to stop demanding democracy at much less pressure than this. Now they are resisting pressure and they keep demanding democracy and freedom.

Even as I travel (still on the road) and check email on unreliable connections and unfamiliar computers, I find my inbox and the comments on ATP innundated with information about what ordinary citizens are doing. This is most heartening.








The pictures say it all and I will let the pictures do the talking here. But as I look at teh pictures, some points do pop into the head about who is protesting here and who is not. Maybe our readers can comment more on this:

  • Note carefully who is protesting for freedom, human dignity and democracy. These are ordinary people. Lawyers. Students. Journalists.
  • Note carefully who they represent. These are amongst the most so-called ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ classes in society. The people who were supposed to be Gen. Musharraf natural constituency. Musharraf has lost the support of the very people who were supposed to be (but never really were) most aligned to him. [Readers, please spare us your diatribes and fatwas about what 'secular' and 'liberal' means. Despite the propaganda from some, neither of those terms means anti-religious or un-Islamic... There is a huge literature on this, so please read it. But, for Allah's sake, not on Wikipedia!!].
  • Note also the solidarity being shown by Pakistanis within and outside Pakistan. While there are obviously those who do support the general, the opposition to the emergency is more widespread than anything one can remember. One can scarcely think of any political act that has united our otherwise divided society they way the general opposition to the Emergency has.
  • More importantly, please note who is NOT in the pictures. Who is not on the streets protesting.
  • Political activists and political leaders are not on the streets. They make statements, but half-heartedly. This is not a movement led by politicians. In fact, it is not even clear whether the politicians are smart enough to just follow the people on the streets. Really conspicuous by their absence are the ‘political workers’. The Million who greeted Benazir, or were supposedly stopped from greeting Nawaz Sharif, or routinely come out for the MMA, are nowhere to be seen. Their leaders have failed to mobilize them, or maybe not tried to do so at all.
  • The one exception to the above may be Imran Khan, but I have long felt that at his core he is more of a civil society actor than a political leader in the true sense; his stance, his style, and even his vote bank seems to suggest the same.
  • Also conspicuous by their absence are the religious parties, the MMA. Beyond statements they do not have much to contribute here. Their words and boasts onpeople’s will and democracy are large but their actions no different from the secular parties.
  • Finally, and probably most importantly, missing from the streets and from protests are the religious extremists (not to be confused with the religious parties which are religious but, mostly, not extremists). The folks who were killing and terrorizing and blowing up ordinary Pakistanis in Swat, in Islamabad, and elsewhere seem not too worried about the Emergency and not to unhappy at the death of democracy. They may even like it that way. This is important because supposedly the Emergency was imposed to curtail them and their activities. However, they seem to be neither affected not interested in the Emergency or the opposition to it.

While the shape of things will obviously evolve, it does seem that a new politics is taking shape in Pakistan. A people-centered politics that might just sideline the mainstream political parties as well as the extremists. It is way too early to say that this will happen. It is quite probable that it will not. But one can certainly not be faulted for hoping that it just might.

129 comments posted

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