Pakistan Bourgeois Breakthrough?
by Stephen Schwartz
These days Pakistan's dictator Pervez Musharraf may well be thinking in the manner of Shakespeare's character Dick the Butcher, who uttered the famous line in Henry IV, Part 2, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." In an exceptional and heartening development, secular attorneys - representing a judicial stratum independent of sharia or Islamic religious law - have emerged as leaders of the opposition to Musharraf's fourth major blow against the country's constitution.
A new form of "people power" in Pakistan, led by the country's professional classes, may be symbolized by dramatic photographs of black-suited barristers, with their starched shirts and neckties, in the forefront of demonstrations against the regime. What a refreshing image for a Muslim country that for decades has been epitomized by indoctrinated medressa students and other seemingly-lobotomized loudmouths shouting defiance in the streets! When lawyers, business people, and bankers, representing the bourgeois values of institutional accountability, come out against tyranny, a real change has become possible, even inevitable. While the progress of full democracy may remain slow, the essential principles of popular sovereignty could soon be restored to Pakistan.
Musharraf's first significant violation of Pakistan's constitution occurred in 1999, when he seized power. He followed it in 2002 with a second assault on legality through a sketchy referendum that granted him a five-year extension of his rule. Earlier this year, he suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, bringing on mass protests. Chaudhury was returned to office, but since then Musharraf has been locked in controversy with the country's judiciary. He ran for president in October and gained a majority of votes, but his position remained contested until he declared a state of emergency on November 3. The problem is simple: it is illegal for Musharraf to hold civil and military office simultaneously, and the lawyers have properly decided to defend the law against arbitrary rule.
Musharraf has also been challenged by jihadist fanatics and by politicians from the past such as Benazir Bhutto. But the general has consistently bent to the will of the radicals roosting along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and few observers have confidence that Bhutto can overcome her long-recognized weaknesses as a leader - including a reputation for tolerance of corruption, and a socialist legacy inherited her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto - hanged by another military usurper, Zia ul-Haq, in 1979.
Musharraf has promised new balloting in February; Bhutto has called the members of her Pakistan People's Party into the streets to oppose the regime, and she has been put under house arrest. Still, the image of angry lawyers is more relevant, in my view, than any of the maneuvers pursued by personalities representing the country's past dissensions.
Some Washington policy experts, mainly in the neoconservative camp, have, I believe correctly, recognized that President George W. Bush faces a "Marcos moment," in a phrase used by leading commentator Robert Kagan. Musharraf, like former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, claims to stand among America's best friends. But the price of U.S. support for Musharraf, as in the case of Marcos, may be far higher than any benefits he can deliver. President Ronald Reagan was convinced by Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Armitage that it was better to back the "people power" challenge to Marcos, represented by Corazon Aquino. The dictator's claims that only he could maintain stability in the multi-island republic, and dark warnings by his cohort that the fall of Marcos would bring about a Communist upsurge, were no longer convincing.
The Communist revolutionary threat died out in Manila once Marcos was removed in 1986. Democracy has proven healthy in the Philippines, and reform there was followed by the end of military rule in South Korea in 1988. Ten years later, in 1998, Indonesia - the world's largest Muslim country - said goodbye to a 32-year military dictatorship, and in 2000, the Guomindang one-party state was dismantled in Taiwan.
Once again, it appears that freedom is on the march. A similar outcome could take place in Pakistan, and with all the tragedy seen in the brief outbreak of protest in Burma, led by Buddhist monks, Rangoon might be liberated soon afterward. Thailand is making shaky progress toward a constitutional restoration, although its military, which grabbed control last year, continues to exercise undue influence.
Musharraf has preened himself as a U.S. ally in the war on terror, but has turned over a significant part of the country to the Taliban and its surrogates. In recent years Pakistan has been second only to Iraq as a theatre of horrific violence by Islamist terrorists - mainly directed against the country's Shia minority, but also targeting secular figures like Bhutto, who barely escaped assassination when she returned to the country in mid-October - and some 139 people were killed in a suicide bombing of her motorcade.
Yet in further evidence that while the world changes rapidly, the Beltway lags behind, most Washington pundits continue to chew over the viability of Bhutto as an ally of or alternative to Musharraf, along with the fantasy that Musharraf can be convinced to suddenly change and confront Islamofascism, after presumably granting new and free, transparent and constitutional elections. Some alleged Pakistan experts appear to have awakened from a deep sleep to discover in bewilderment that Musharraf considers the judiciary, rather than the terrorists, as his main enemy. Comparing Bhutto with Corazon Aquino seems to be the limit of daring to some.
But Corazon Aquino was a new face for the Philippines, and she was what the people of that country needed and desired. Bhutto, like Musharraf, the Pakistani military leaders, radical Sunni clerics, and assorted second-rate politicians such as Nawaz Sharif, widely considered an ally of radical Islam, represent the past, not the future, of Pakistan.
Politics around the world, since 2001, has been dangerously unstable, and those who rise during the convulsions of this period may well speak in unanticipated idioms, representing previously-neglected constituencies. As I and others have written before, only courage is needed to face such challenges.
President Bush has correctly called on Musharraf to return to the path of a democratic transition. But as lawyers and other civil professionals step forward to demand respect for legality, all the old choices may be swept aside, and the man in the suit and tie on the front lines in Lahore may herald a transformation few have predicted. The new protest movement in Pakistan is bound to find new leaders, and not to be content with old hacks. Americans and others who believe in democracy should stand with the lawyers of Pakistan as with the monks in Burma, protestors in Georgia, opponents of Putinism, and reformists in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The global revolution of bourgeois democracy may have entered a new and beneficial phase in Pakistan. A victory for civil society in Pakistan would represent a huge step forward, as a defeat of Islamist ideology and impetus for democratic values in the Muslim world. The U.S. does not need to act crudely in Pakistan - but reminding its people of how Reagan withdrew support from Marcos would probably do no harm at all.