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Anatomy of a protest

Updated May 21, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

BACK in March 2007, Gen Pervez Musharraf, sacked the then chief justice of Pakistan. This provoked the lawyers of Pakistan to launch a movement led by senior lawyers such as Muneer Malik, Aitzaz Ahsan and Ali Ahmad Kurd.

The movement caught the imagination of a nation tiring of the rule of one man. The main opposition parties — which had already suffered at the hands of Musharraf — were quick to join in, as were the religious parties. Members of civil society wasn’t far behind either; they included non-governmental organisations, as well as members of the growing middle class and others (for those who remember those heady days, former finance minister Asad Umar shot to fame during this period).

Apparently, there were some among the senior military leadership of the time who were not against the movement. Shortly after that March morning when Musharraf called the chief justice in and told him his time was up, stories made their way into the press of a meeting in which Musharraf was flanked by some of his senior men including the then ISI chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani.

Reportedly, when the judge was given his marching orders, the spy chief kept quiet; he was there but he didn’t say anything, implying that he didn’t agree with what his then chief was up to. As reports go, the seed was planted thus of a general whose fountain of power was drying up.

Even if the parties are ready for such a prolonged protest, there has to be a consensus on the goal.

Seven months later, the chief justice had been restored and Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto had made a deal which allowed her to return to the country. But it was a difficult decision for her (as well as for Musharraf). Even some of her own party members had doubts — once again there were news reports of meetings where she confronted those who were advising her to not talk to a compromised dictator.

Benazir Bhutto reportedly asked them what alternatives they had in mind, at which point the debate ended — in other words, neither she nor those who wanted her to stick to the protests thought the latter could overthrow Musharraf. She returned and was assassinated, and yet Musharraf stayed in power — though he was forced to give up his position as chief of army staff.

In between, he sacked the judges again, held elections, continued to face protests from the lawyers as parties opposed to him took control of the centre as well as Punjab and Sindh. And finally, in August 2008, he was forced to resign when parliament threatened to impeach him and no one (read the military) was willing to come to his rescue.

A year and a half to get rid of a man no one was standing behind except for the Q League, the party he created. A year and a half in which the legal community continued to protest while the political parties shifted from a protest on the streets to political moves (once they had contested elections and captured power) to remove him.

This boring history lesson is perhaps a reminder that sending someone home is not all that easy or quick. So, can just an alliance between two (or more political parties) bring about a change and send a government home?

If another (shorter) history lesson can provide some more illumination, Asif Ali Zardari was reluctant to restore the judiciary sacked by Musharraf during the emergency. He did so when he was finally isolated from the PML-N and Kayani, and the lawyers lined up against him. (And had he not imposed governor’s rule in Punjab, it might not have been easy for the PML-N to squarely back the lawyers movement.)

The legal community’s protests — which continued from 2007 to 2009 — were not pressure enough. Also, it’s important to remember this crisis had a shorter gestation period because the aim was to restore a chief justice; it was not to bring the government down.

On the other hand, there was the dharna in 2014. There may not be a consensus on what the then military leadership wanted, but there is a strong point of view that the objective then was to send the government packing while this was the stated aim of the PTI and Tahirul Qadri of PAT. If we assume this to be true, the move failed because the PPP stood by the beleaguered PML-N. In other words, even the support of a strong political party can thwart a hefty alliance of stakeholders.

And what all three incidents illustrate is that a protest happens when it is organised and led; people don’t just hit the streets impulsively and for long periods of time. This requires leadership and planning.

Some of the main opposition parties understand this better than those of us just watching from the sidelines. This is why the iftar on Sunday ended with a promise to meet again to discuss (once again) the future course of action (where does this leave Asif Ali Zardari’s declarations of a tehrik after Eid to dislodge the government, by the way).

They know that sending a government packing requires hefty alliances, an isolated ruler and prolonged street protests. A long march or a jalsa or two ain’t gonna do it. If it took over a year with the uniformed ones on the same side, how long will it take without them? (Also, such a movement, if it succeeds, brings no guarantee that the protesters will control the situation the day after.)

And even if the parties are ready for such a prolonged protest, there has to be a consensus on the goal. Nothing such as this was visible at the press conference on Sunday evening, where some leaders such as Shahid Abbasi spoke of the economic issues and the government’s incompetence, while Mohsin Dawar emphasised the rule of law and the supremacy of parliament, and ANP’s Mian Iftikharuddin felt that new elections had to be held.

In other words, so far, the parties are not even agreed on what they want publicly — the debate over the connection between the PPP’s and PML-N’s aggressive stand and their accountability cases aside.

There has to be common cause before the allies will identify themselves and those they want to join hands with. Picture abhi baaqi hai, meray dost. There is no harm in grabbing a big bag of popcorn and hoping for a good moment at interval time.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2019