The Looming Clouds of Emergency?

UPDATE: An updated discussion of the issues in this post may be found in my column for AsiaMedia on May 18, 2007.


It's been an eventful week in Pakistan. A recap for folks who get most of their news from American media outlets may have missed it:

  • In a speech on Saturday, President Pervez Musharraf once again accused "non-functional" Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry's supporters in the Pakistani legal community of "trying to give political colour to a judicial issue." He warned "that they would not succeed in their designs," and again defended his decision to suspend Chaudhry. [link]

  • In response, tens of thousands of Chaudhry's supporters and Musharraf's opponents rallied in support of Chaudhry's motorcade on Saturday and Sunday as it proceeded through towns along the Grand Trunk Road from Islamabad to Lahore — a four-hour trip that took Chaudhry's motorcade approximately twenty-six. "Nations and states which are based on dictatorship instead of the supremacy of the constitution, the rule of law and protection of basic rights get destroyed," Chaudhry warned in a speech to lawyers in Lahore. The government apparently blacked out news coverage of the demonstrations and arrested many activists in advance of Chaudhry's yatra. [one, two, three]

  • In response to the demonstrations, Musharraf's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank executive in New York, warned that the government reserved the option under the Pakistan Constitution to declare a state of emergency. He also warned the media to "use its press freedom with responsibility" and "avoid inappropriate reporting." [link]

  • On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of Pakistan "strictly prohibited" any "discussions, comments or write ups which may interfere with the legal process, or ridicule, scandalize or malign the Court or any of its Judges/Members of the Supreme Judicial Council or touching the merits of cases pending both before the Supreme Judicial Council/Supreme Court" and warned that violators would be punished for contempt of court. [link] Meanwhile, that same day in Karachi, government officials sealed the law office of Munir Malik, President of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association and one of the lawyers defending Chaudhry. Within hours, the Sindh High Court ordered Malik's office unsealed, and early on Thursday morning, shots were fired into Malik's home by unidentified gunmen. [link]

Leaving to one side the merits of the charges against Chaudhry, about which I have nothing to say, Musharraf's repeated attempts to draw a line between politics and law in this case — and at that, to do so in the course of his own political speeches and press conferences — seem a bit naive at best. Indeed, the highly politicized manner in which Musharraf and Aziz initially handled the referral of the case back in March, as summarized in a preliminary report released on Tuesday by the International Bar Association, seems to have intertwined the case with politics from the start. And clearly, the case has touched a nerve implicating issues bigger than anything to do with Chaudhry himself. Given the Supreme Court's gag order, the cabinet has now asked Musharraf and other government officials to stop talking about the case. [link]

Aziz's talk of emergency seems more ominous, evoking not only earlier moments in Pakistani history but also the notorious Emergency declared in India during the 1970s. Facing growing political opposition and an unfavorable judicial decision that would have tossed her from office, Indira Gandhi instead tossed Indian democracy itself to one side, manipulating constitutional provisions authorizing the declaration of emergency to suspend fundamental rights, censor news coverage, detain tens of thousands of political opponents and others, and effectively rule by decree. Pakistan seems to be facing a similar moment. With elections required by the end of this year, Musharraf has been maneuvering for a way to remain President while retaining his post as Chief of Army Staff, which would appear to violate the Pakistan Constitution. (Indeed, Musharraf has already violated his own promise to give up either his post as Army Chief or his civilian post as President by December 2004.) A state of emergency could provide a convenient pretext for Musharraf to postpone elections and prolong his hold on power. At the same time, given the depth of political opposition that the Chaudhry affair has exposed, one has to cringe at the thought of what it might take for the Pakistan Army to meaningfully enforce any declaration of emergency.

So far, there seems little basis for even a pretextual declaration of emergency. But the Chaudhry Yatra proceeds this weekend to Karachi, where Chaudhry is scheduled to address the Sindh High Court Bar Association. Chadhury's supporters have scheduled an anti-Musharraf demonstration, and in response the pro-Musharraf MQM has scheduled a counterdemonstration to take place at the same time nearby, which Musharraf opponents allege has been planned in a deliberate attempt to stir up violence. (Musharraf also has scheduled a political rally of his own to take place at the same time in Islamabad.) Karachi is understandably on edge in advance of the competing demonstrations, for which the government is planning to deploy 15,000 police.

Will the unfolding events provide Musharraf with a convenient excuse to declare an emergency? And what are U.S. diplomats saying to Pakistani officials behind closed doors? In the words of the Faiz Ahmed Faiz ghazal that has been much quoted in connection with this week's events, "hum dekhenge."