[Marxism] Mass Demonstration Defies Pakistani Government

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Mar 15 09:57:59 MDT 2009

NY Times, March 16, 2009
Mass Demonstration Defies Pakistani Government

LAHORE, Pakistan — A crackdown by the Pakistani government to prevent a 
national demonstration and detain the country’s leading opposition 
figure collapsed on Sunday, and what had been a clash between the police 
and protesters transformed into a huge antigovernment rally.

In what analysts here called an unprecedented reversal by security 
forces, phalanxes of riot policemen here in Lahore melted away rather 
than continue to confront protesters who had rallied around the 
opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, when he defied a house arrest order 
early Sunday.

By early evening, the sight of exuberant anti-government crowds in 
Lahore — a mix of Mr. Sharif’s loyalists, supporters of smaller 
opposition parties and ordinary people with their young children — 
encouraged people in other cities in the Punjab Province to come out on 
the streets

In a long convoy of cars, Mr. Sharif headed toward Islamabad, with 
supporters ready to greet him along the 200 mile route, said Ahsan 
Iqbal, the information secretary for Mr. Sharif’s party, the Pakistan 
Muslim League-N said.

Party workers armed with cranes were removing shipping containers placed 
as roadblocks by the police at junctions along the route to the capital, 
Mr. Iqbal said.

Mr. Sharif began the day under house arrest at his home outside Lahore, 
hemmed in by barbed wire and security roadblocks. But he denounced the 
crackdown as illegal and said he would move to address an opposition 
demonstration at the city center and continue with a national opposition 
march on the capital planned for Monday. He left his house in a convoy 
of cars that broke through a ring of police barriers.

Then the convoy reached the main thoroughfare in Lahore, known as The 
Mall, it was joined by truckloads of supporters, who waved banners and 
shouted slogans calling for the restoration of an independent judiciary. 
Apparently with the help of sympathetic police officials, Mr. Sharif’s 
convoy was able to move slowly toward the area around the General Post 
Office building, where riot police and protesters began scuffling.

A phalanx of several hundred police officers in riot gear fired shells 
of tear gas for more than an hour at the protesters. The police then 
brought in armored vehicles to fire more rounds of tear gas as stones 
and empty tear gas shells littered the road. Some protesters set tires 
on fire, and police officers wielding batons chased them.

But by 5 p.m., the police disappeared and huge crowds, on foot and in 
cars, enveloped the Mall. Green, red and white banners of with portraits 
of Mr. Sharif were held aloft as other groups, including 
Jamaat-i-Islami, a right wing Islamist group, joined what turned into 
the anti-government demonstration that the government had feared all 
along. The leader of the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, moved toward 
the High Court, accompanied by scores of lawyers, to make a speech.

One of the senior officials in the Lahore government, the chief 
magistrate, Sajjad Bhutta, told reporters he refused to carry out what 
he called the illegal acts of the police crackdown. He appeared among 
the crowds on the mall, surrounded by cheers and waving flags.

Mr. Ahsan said that protesters would try to defy the government’s 
efforts to keep them away from Islamabad and would attempt to converge 
on the capital from various points around the country on Monday.

“The strategy is simple,” Mr. Ahsan said. “The long march is on for an 
indefinite period.”

There appeared to have been a decision, either by provincial officials, 
many of whom support Mr. Sharif, or at the national level, to allow Mr. 
Sharif to proceed.

A statement by the Home Department in Lahore released shortly after the 
police fired tear gas said that the police had taken the action only 
after the protesters turned violent. And in Islamabad, Farahnaz 
Ispahani, a spokeswoman for President Asif Ali Zardari, said on Sunday 
that the detention orders for leaders of the PML-N had been issued for 
the sake of their security.

“The government cannot be responsible for someone inflaming crowds,” she 
said. “It’s not a mature move. From a security view we don’t think this 
is a wise move.”

Still, the profound turnaround, from government crackdown to a huge 
anti-government show, was greeted with amazement by analysts and lawyers 
in Pakistan. During the eight year military rule of President Pervez 
Musharraf from 1999 to early last year, there were no similar efforts to 
crackdown on demonstrators in such a way, they said. For example, the 
lawyers movement organized large convoys through the countryside in 2007 
in protest against the dismissal of chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

But the convoys were allowed to proceed largely untouched by security 
forces, they said.

“This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the police and 
civil administration have defied orders by the government to control 
public demonstrations,” said Ashtar Ali, a corporate lawyer who supports 
the Pakistan Muslim League-N. “The writ of the government has failed.”

A mirror incident played out in Islamabad earlier on Sunday, when police 
officers in riot gear arrested Mahdum Javed Hashemi, a senior member of 
the Pakistan Muslim League-N, plucking him from the passenger seat of a 
purple Toyota Land Cruiser.

A small crowd of supporters shouted “We disagree!” as Mr. Hashemi was 
led toward a police truck.

“We’re not running because we’re not afraid of this illegal order,” Mr. 
Hashemi said. “Even if I’m gone, my party workers and the lawyers will 
keep on working for the freedom of the judiciary.”

Ms. Ispahani, the spokeswoman for Mr. Zardari, said that Mr. Hashemi had 
been detained because “we want to keep him home, we want to keep him safe.”

The current battle between Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif, a former prime 
minister, began on Feb. 25 when the president imposed executive rule on 
the Punjab Legislature, the stronghold of Mr. Sharif’s party.

Hours earlier, the Supreme Court had issued its ruling disqualifying the 
Sharifs from holding office. To consolidate their opposition to Mr. 
Zardari, the brothers joined forces with the lawyers’ movement, which 
had called for a national protest and sit-in in Islamabad on March 16.

Appeals by the United States to President Asif Ali Zardari and to Nawaz 
Sharif to cool the political crisis in the past few days appeared to 
have been rebuffed.

In a last-minute move to mollify the opposition, Mr. Zardari’s spokesman 
said Saturday night that the government would seek a review of a Supreme 
Court decision last month that disqualified the Sharif brothers from 
holding elective office. But Mr. Sharif has said that such a gesture 
would be insufficient to head off the protests.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Mr. Zardari and Mr. 
Sharif on Saturday evening to discuss the situation before the 
announcement was made, spokesmen for the two men said. Although Mr. 
Zardari’s gesture came after she called, it seemed not enough to deter 
Mr. Sharif.

Mr. Zardari also said in a statement by his spokesman that the 
government would review how Supreme Court judges, fired two years ago by 
President Pervez Musharraf, could be restored. This would be done, he 
said, in accordance with a document signed three years ago by Mr. Sharif 
and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Carlotta Gall and Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from 
Islamabad, and Waqar Gillani from Lahore.

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