November 6, 2007

Bhutto To Join Protests

The political instability in Pakistan may get more intense by the end of the week, according to Der Spiegel. If Benazir Bhutto proceeds with her plans to join the lawyers and judges in the streets to protest against Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency, she could push the military dictator and erstwhile president into either expanding the emergency or getting toppled from power in a countercoup:

With leaders from across the world twisting the arm of Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to retreat from his declaration of emergency on Saturday, the most intense pressure may be brewing from inside the country. Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who has so far refrained from mobilizing her supporters against Musharraf's installation of military rule, may go on the offensive later this week.

Protests so far have been led by the country's lawyers, who staged marches in cities around the country on Monday and Tuesday.

But on Tuesday, as Musharraf was holding a cabinet meeting to decide on a timeline for elections Bhutto made her way from Karachi to the capital, Islamabad, to meet with other opposition politicians and to plan a massive rally for Friday in the nearby city of Rawalpindi. As Bhutto boarded a plane in Karachi she vowed that she would not meet or negotiate with Musharraf.

Until Saturday Bhutto had been expected to form some kind of power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf after returning from exile two weeks ago. She has already denounced the emergency declaration as "mini-martial law" but had so far held back from mobilizing her huge popular support. However, on Monday she said: "If we do nothing, then Musharraf will think that the nation supports what has happened, and the nation does not support that." Speaking to the London Times Bhutto said: "The people of this country want change. They want General Musharraf to announce the restoration of the constitution, his retirement as Chief of Army Staff and the holding of elections on schedule."

Musharraf's ministers have tried to tamp down protests with promises of democratic normalcy. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz insisted that Musharraf would conduct the parliamentary elections as scheduled in January, promising that the current parliament would not have its term extended by a year, as a PCO might allow Musharraf to order. Another member of Musharraf's cabinet was less encouraging, saying that Musharraf wanted to elections to proceed but some elements of his ruling clique wanted them postponed.

In the meantime, the arrests continue. Opposition groups put the number detained at 3,500, while the government says only 2,500 arrests have been made. Of course, with the lawyers and the courts virtually shut out of the system, one may not ever get a clear idea of how many are being held by Musharraf -- and they may wait a long time to get out of jail through the legal process. The term "jailhouse lawyers" has become a literal truth in Pakistan, along with jailhouse rights activists and jailhouse Islamists.

Into this mix comes Benazir Bhutto. She returned to Pakistan as a compromise with Musharraf on restoring democracy, allowing Musharraf to hold onto power while allying against the Islamists. She will lose credibility if she acquiesces silently to this mini-coup, but she could easily hand Pakistan over to the Islamists if she destabilizes Musharraf even further. If the military supports Musharraf, Bhutto will wind up in opposition to them, which will range her onto the same side as the Islamists.

None of the options look especially promising for Bhutto or Musharraf. These actions seem almost designed to weaken the efforts to marginalize the radicals. By this weekend, some nightmare scenarios may start playing out, and the US and the West may need to start looking at very difficult decisions regarding the fight against Islamists in the northern territories.

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