Eyewitness to Pakistan turmoil


PPP rally in RawalpindiRawalpindi, Pakistan. In the waking hours of Monday morning I watched as the Zardari Government was bought to its knees. Intense political pressure had forced Prime Minister Gilani to reinstate Chief Justice Chaudhry.

The lead-up to this came as Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of the Punjab, were simultaneously dismissed from office by the Supreme Court on 25 February, effectively barring them both from holding public office.

I was in Rawalpindi the day after Sharif's dismissal. I saw groups of young men roaming the streets, breaking shop fronts and destroying public property. The hotel I was planning to stay in was attacked and had its windows smashed. Groups of men on motorbikes, waving flags and sticks, sped by, shouting political slogans.

'Welcome to Pakistan,' I thought to myself.

In the weeks that followed, Pakistan plunged further into political instability, with an increase in civil disobedience, the uprise of anti government rallies and the threat of a political coup. The Long March intensified and aimed for the heart of Islamabad, a city that was in total lockdown.

Defying his house arrest, Nawaz Sharif broke through several police barricades and led the Long March into the streets of Lahore.

Violent clashes began between protestors and riot police, who, under strict orders to stop the march at all costs, began shelling the crowds with tear gas. Reports of a journalist being run over by police caused a backlash and protestors immediately turned on the authorities, setting an armoured police bus ablaze.

Arrest warrants were issued for Imran Khan and Shahbaz Sharif, but both evaded capture and made it to Rawalpindi, where they remained in hiding until news of Chief Justice Chaudhry's reinstatement was broadcast. Dozens of other political figures were also arrested and detained during the lead up to the march to Islamabad.

The streets of Rawalpindi were now relatively empty, an eerie feeling in a usually bustling city. Shipping containers and large trucks blocked off every major road to and from the city.

But after slipping past several police checkpoints and entering the centre of town I noticed that the city had not come to a complete standstill. Large groups of men once again roamed the streets, only this time they were patiently waiting for the call to action. A call that has now been answered by the current government.

Sharif has been fighting to reinstate Chief Justice Chaudhry, who, before his suspension in 2007, opened up the 'missing persons' case and began to dig into the dark recesses of the government's dealings with its secret agencies. As a consequence, the US was implicated in hundreds of cases of innocent people disappearing due to US led interrogation techniques in the fight to curb the war on terror.

Chaudhry is considered to be politically dangerous to a lot of people, so the thought of him now being reinstated and having the power of an independent judiciary will have many people feeling nervous.

The Pakistani establishment has been split into two camps: Zardari and Sharif.

Zardari, whose popularity as president is plummeting, represents the US backed Pakistan, a country that is content ruling and being ruled as it is.

Sharif is backed by the Pakistani elite, a movement of people who are questioning the status quo, who are sick of seeing their money disappear as bribes for feudal lords, ministers and police, sick of a country riddled with corruption and incompetent people in positions of power, and who largely want Pakistan to grow and prosper.

Of course it reeks of having capitalist motives, and Sharif is no saint when it comes to corruption allegations. But it is a grassroots democratic movement based loosely around the principles of Western democracy. If implemented it could do wonders for the country.

Reuben BrandReuben Brand is an Australian Freelance Journalist based in Pakistan. For more information visit his website. Photos by Reuben Brand.

Topic tags: Reuben Brand, pakistan, Rawalpindi, long march, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Shahbaz Sharif



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Existing comments

I am not a journalist, nor am I a political commentator, and no, I have not visited Pakistan. I am simply a teacher. While I agree with much of Reuben's commentary, I find his conclusion that democracy can happen in Pakistan hard to accept. There are so many dark forces at work within the country at present as to ensure chaos, revolution and civil war are a far more likely scenario. What then will we do when a nuclear armed Pakistan ends up in the hands Islamic terrorists? It's too horrible to even contemplate.

Gavin O'Brien | 23 March 2009  

Reuben - Thanks for the update - clearly outlined with good quality information. Keep safe.

MAXINE CARON | 24 March 2009  

Gavin, I agree with you that the outlook for Pakistan is unfortunately not great. Change will need to come from the grass-roots level as there is so much corruption embedded in the system that it needs a complete overhaul - I suggest you check out the UNEDITED version of this article on Reuben's website, it gives a bit of a different conclusion to the one presented here (Not sure why they changed it really!)

Cosima | 26 March 2009  

Cosimo - as suggested I did read the unedited version. I too wonder why its conclusion was not included?

Gavin O'Brien | 27 March 2009  

For those who are interested, Reuben's conclusion from his blog:

'Where Pakistan will go from here is anyone’s guess, but as tremors quake throughout the political landscape it may be a good time to till the soil and sow new seeds.'

Apart from a slightly corny, cliched metaphor, I don't see that it adds much, except to reiterate that there are questions and uncertainty about the future.

Charles Boy | 27 March 2009  

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