Déjà Vu All Over Again

A Thousand Words: Badalta hai rang aasmaan (All Things Pakistan)Perhaps it's fitting that Pakistan's latest crisis has come just as the television series Battlestar Galactica (whose final episode airs next week) is drawing to a close. Between the Musharraf Supreme Court's controversial decision to declare Pakistan Muslim League-N leaders Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif ineligible to hold public office, President Asif Ali Zardari's decision to crack down on the lawyers' movement and other opponents, and the State Department's apparent decision, at least initially, to respond to the crisis somewhat tepidly, one is left, wearily, with the irresistible sense that all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

To refresh our collective recollection, Zardari's ascent to power last September came on the heels of an unprecedented movement in which Pakistan's lawyers and ultimately its electorate decisively rejected then-General-cum-President Pervez Musharraf's interference with the independence of Pakistan's judiciary and his authoritarian, martial law-like crackdown on his opponents in the guise of "Emergency." Like Benazir Bhutto before him, Zardari pledged on many occasions after the election to fulfill the key demands that stirred this mass movement to action: restoration of the judges unlawfully ousted by Musharraf, and in particular, restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Zardari also promised to roll back the powers accumulated in the presidency by Musharraf, restoring the supremacy of Pakistan's parliament. Well over a year has passed since Pakistan's electorate delivered that mandate. However, Zardari's government has neither restored Chaudhry to his position, nor rolled back any of the other extraconstitutional actions taken by Musharraf during the Emergency, nor repealed the sweeping executive powers instituted by Musharraf.

Now, with Musharraf's still-lingering Supreme Court declaring Zardari's PML-N rivals ineligible to hold office, Zardari's government has dismissed the PML-N government in Punjab and imposed Governor's Rule, leading to civil and political unrest throughout the province. In response to this week's second anniversary of Chaudhry's suspension by Musharraf, the lawyers' movement already had planned a second "Long March" on Islamabad, from March 12 to 16, seeking restoration of Pakistan's pre-November 2007 constitution and reinstatement of all judges ousted during the Emergency.

Apparently feeling the political heat, Zardari then discovered his inner Musharraf -- not on the golf course, as he previously had told the world he would have preferred, but rather in the authoritarian laws inherited from the British:

[P]olice and intelligence officials carried out early-morning raids across Punjab and Sindh, arresting more than 300 lawyers and political activists.... The crackdown began late Tuesday night, with the government invoking Section 144 of the 1860 Penal Code, a law from the British colonial era that forbids public gatherings of four or more people. As whispers of imminent arrests gathered momentum and local television channels exhibited lengthy lists of intended targets, many prominent lawyers and politicians went into hiding, just as they did during a crackdown operated by former President Pervez Musharraf....

Indeed, many of the people allegedly on the lists were last arrested in late 2007, when Musharraf imposed emergency rule....

Athar Minallah, a prominent lawyer, maneuvered himself out of being arrested from the driver's seat of his car. "I locked myself in the car, and the police didn't know how to get me," he said. "So I called the television cameras who were only two minutes away. I began giving live interviews from the car, addressing the Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, directly. After a while, Mr. Malik came down himself and shouted the police officers away." [link]

Perhaps seeking to out-Musharraf Musharraf, Zardari's government has even played the terrorism card.

During the 2008 campaign, President Obama sharply criticized the Bush administration's approach to Pakistan, asserting that by

coddl[ing] Musharraf, we alienated the Pakistani population, because we were anti-democratic. We had a 20th-century mindset that basically said, 'Well, you know, he may be a dictator, but he's our dictator."....

That's going to change when I'm president of the United States. [link]

So how has the new administration responded to this week's events? State Department spokesperson Robert Wood's initial response did not go all that smoothly:

'You haven’t been clear at all about where the US stands on what's going on in Pakistan,' said a journalist.

'I have given you what our position is. I can’t give you an assessment of what’s taking place right at this moment on the ground,' said Wood.

'That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking, what is your position on reinstatement of the chief judge,' the journalist asked.

'That’s something that’s going to have to be determined by the Pakistanis in accordance with their laws and their constitution. I can’t go beyond that,' said Wood.

'But when President Musharraf installed a state of emergency to avoid the reinstatement of the judges, you had called for the reinstatement of the judges,' the journalist reminded him.

'Look, I’m giving you what the policy is right now. And as I’ve said, this is something that needs to be worked out within Pakistan’s political sphere in accordance with its laws. That’s about the best I can give you,' said Wood. [link]

Still, to their credit, Wood and other diplomats, including special envoy Richard Holbrooke, have publicly expressed concern about Zardari's restrictions on freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, and have urged Pakistan to act in accordance to the rule of law. Will it make any difference? As when the crisis over the judiciary first began, hum dekhenge. Again, and still.

Posted by Anil Kalhan