September 29: Musharraf’s Day of Blunders

By Nasim Zehra, IANS

The legal ‘home-run’ handed down to General Pervez Musharraf was never going to translate into immediate political gain. But the Musharraf government seems to have become adept at aggravating its political problems by its own blunders.

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If Sep 28 brought some respite for the Musharraf camp, Sep 29 should have been a day of serious remorse and reflection. The dominant reality of the day was the unfettered application of brutal force by the police on protesting lawyers and on journalists reporting the protests.

Other issues including the lawyers’ display of anger at the Supreme Court for deciding effectively in favour of Musharraf’s candidature for presidential elections took a back seat. By the end of the day the government had two active fronts to fight on: the lawyers and the journalists.

For at least five hours the contest between the will power and determination of the around 400 plus unarmed lawyers and the armed and attacking policemen raged. The police refused to listen to the plea of the Supreme Court registrar who came out to ask the police to let the lawyers march peacefully towards the Election Commission.

The journalists reporting the event were also targeted. The police, as if on a rampage, were attacking literally anyone who moved towards the Supreme Court. Their action left at least half a dozen journalists from the print and electronic media bleeding and injured. Not to be intimidated by the brute force, dozens of journalists spread across the Constitution Avenue united.

The seasoned secretary general of the journalists union PFUJ, Mazhar Abbas, moved instantly to demand that all journalists should boycott the prime minister’s evening function. Some highly agitated journalists unfortunately beat up State Minister for Information Tariq Azeem. Reportedly, the driver of the ambulance in which the minister left the Election Commission building told the journalists as he drove through that the minister was in his vehicle.

The police force far exceeded the lawyers in numbers. In uniform and in plainclothes and armed with ‘dandas’, they were spread all over on Constitution Avenue, between the National Assembly and the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. The lawyers had gathered inside the Supreme Court premises.

From there they had to begin marching, as announced last week, towards the Election Commission. In following orders to prevent the movement of lawyers towards the Election Commission, the police used tear gas, lathis and even stones. They began their task of restricting the lawyers’ movement by firing tear gas at the lawyers inside the Supreme Court premises.

A senior lawyer, Aitazaz Ahsan, was hit by a stone and then brutally attacked with lathis. The police first lathi-charged Ali Kurd, who burnt a copy of the Supreme Court judgment, and then arrested him. Many other lawyers were beaten up and hurt and were seen being taken away in ambulances.

While the lawyers protested and chanted ‘Go Musharraf!’ the prime minister and almost the entire cabinet was present in the Election Commission building while the Election Commissioner scrutinized the nominations of Musharraf and the other candidates.

If this is a taste of things to come, the week-long political journey to the presidential elections promises to be very turbulent for Musharraf, his men and above all for Pakistan. The fallout of this turbulence will be deeper political polarization making Musharraf’s candidacy increasingly more controversial.

The Supreme Court, the lawyers, the government, the media, the principle presidential candidate and the Election Commission have all come under severe criticism. Confrontation and not accommodation is the hallmark of Pakistan’s current condition. The bright spot still remains that power and authority are under scrutiny from multiple sources.

Yet, lingering consistently is the intolerance in a highly charged political situation. Long spells of absence of constitutional democracy will always undermine a society’s collective ability to accommodate and co-exist. While governments are principally responsible for undermining tolerance, its negative fallout extends beyond the government. The current message from most of the contestants in public space is: “If you are not with us completely, you are against us.”

(Nasim Zehra is a national security strategist and columnist. She can be reached at [email protected])