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Dateline Pakistan: Lawyers as Revolutionaries?

Is Pervez Musharraf the Gorbachev of Pakistan — or the Shah of Islamabad?

October 2, 2007

Is Pervez Musharraf the Gorbachev of Pakistan — or the Shah of Islamabad?

It is not often that TV screens and newspaper photos capture lawyers, clad in dark suits and white shirts, hurling stones and rocks at the powers that be. You see, lawyers are generally seen as the backbone of the establishment — regardless of whether it is a nice one or a nasty one.

But the pictures shooting across the globe in recent months from Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, and Islamabad, the capital city, provide a clear exception to this rule.

In March 2007 — incensed by the imperious, and illegal, way in which General/President Musharraf suspended the country’s chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry — lawyers were indeed acting in what must be considered a very unlawyerly way. They hurled rocks at the police.

Their street protests were a clear sign of the despair gripping Pakistan — a country that, based on current population growth trends, promises to become the fifth-most populous in the world by 2050 (ranking only behind India, China, the United States and Indonesia).

Musharraf has ruled Pakistan ever since he took power in October 1999 by ousting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup.

As his tenure has shown, governing Pakistan is a complex endeavor. One has to be able to navigate among the often mutually exclusive positions of the country’s powerful clerics, the extremely competitive intelligence services, other political forces and society at large.

For a long time, Musharraf proved adept at the game. And now that Pakistan’s economy has been growing at an impressive 7% clip since 2005, General Musharraf was quite certain that he would have smoother sailing — despite the occasional attempt at his life.

Alas, so far it has not turned out this way. In reality, economic growth is making Pakistanis more restive — not less so. They see their country’s potential — and realize that its political development is lagging far behind its economic progress.

Such a trend does not concern Musharraf, who essentially sees himself as an early 20th century constitutional monarch in the European tradition.

In other words, he views himself as an enlightened ruler willing to give his people as much room for maneuver as they can handle (which will tend to be very little, when measured in terms of sharing actual political power).

Trouble is, in reality, such an “enlightened” practice still stunts the development of democratic traditions — and makes it more difficult to learn the give-and-take of compromise.

The fact that the lawyers continue to be so frustrated that they are openly challenging the president is particularly interesting in a historic context.

Back in the early 1980s, 3,000 miles to the West there was another country — firmly in the hands of a general — who found his rule all of a sudden challenged by another seemingly unlikely group of people. At the time, it too seemed like a long shot for them to succeed with their revolution by eventually toppling the general.

The scene was Gdansk, Poland in August, 1980. Back then, it was not lawyers, but shipyard workers who stormed the barricades and resisted the oppressive rule of General Wojciech Jaruzelski.

Unlike their counterparts in Pakistan’s Lahore, at least they were “proletarians” (in keeping with classic Marxist theory of the class struggle).

Still, who would have ever thought that a mustachioed shipyard worker would start a movement of political change that would eventually grip all of Eastern Europe — and the Soviet Union, to boot? And that the man in question, a true “proletarian,” would eventually become President of a democratic Poland?

From today’s perspective, the likelihood of any such power shift in Pakistan still seems remote — but especially so in Western eyes since the twin perils of extremist religious leaders and loose-nukes intelligence services loom large in the minds and imaginations of most outsiders.

Surely, any political transition in Pakistan will be a messy one. But further delaying the transition process is an even worse option because it systematically prevents the growth of that precious flower of political compromise.

The need for political reform is all the more urgent because Pakistan’s economic growth is just beginning to shift the domestic equation of despair.

What more economic opportunity ultimately boils down to in political terms is that a spreading sense that the pie is growing. That, in turn, deflects Pakistanis’ customary attention from their country’s ethnic and religious infighting.

Come to think of it, the latter obsessions are all hallmarks of societies marred by the fact that there is little else worth fighting about on the home front.

Now, however, economic progress — while still uneven — is triggering a change in confidence. As evidenced by the continuing protests, those elements of society which had heretofore hesitated to kickstart political reform are now sensing that the time is ripe for change.

It will likely be a while before Pakistan makes a full transition to a more stable society. But because of rising levels of economic growth, the general conditions for more attention being devoted to political stability and good governance are now in place.

However, in spite of this positive trend, Musharraf is systematically preventing democracy from gaining a toehold. This is ironic because he has always been keen on presenting himself as a kind of “Gorbachev of Pakistan.”

The longer he remains in power and stymies political reform, the more the world arrives at the realization that he is Pakistan’s Breshnev — not its Gorbachev.

Then, of course, there are those who rather see him as the “Shah of Islamabad,” without a Peacock Throne, but bound to be toppled nevertheless — and succeeded by the Pakistani equivalent of Khomeini.

But even for that dire scenario, Iran’s case holds a valuable lesson: The longer the Shah was propped up and kept in place, the stronger the build-up was that enabled Khomeini and his forces to take the country by storm.

Either way, whether he is another Shah or a Breshnev, the writing for Musharraf is on the wall.

And, in a moment to cherish for all time, it may have been Pakistan’s courageous lawyers who — by taking to the streets (and even throwing stones) — have sent the same signal that is now captured in the world’s collective imagination when Lech Walesa mounted the barricades at the Gdansk shipyard.

He was armed with something truly dangerous, a real weapon of dictator destruction (or WDD): A megaphone.

Watching the scene in Pakistan reminds one vividly of some of the opening lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In his work about how the earth was created, he spoke of “rudis indigestaque moles,” a wild and indigestible mass…

Sounds like the birthing pangs of Pakistani democracy. Ultimately, the question before the world is this: Can Pakistan eventually go where Indonesia — now the world’s third-largest democracy — has managed to travel?