Pakistan’s Slow-Motion Emergency

By Ali Sethi, who is writing a novel about growing up in Pakistan (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 02/12/07):

The other day, as we made our way through the clogged arteries of this seaside metropolis, I asked my driver why he and so many others here were ecstatic about the return of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister. Surprisingly, he didn’t say anything about the civil rights abuses of the government of President Pervez Musharraf, or about fears of militant Islam and the Taliban. Rather, he cited his wallet; he, and many like him, have an inexplicable nostalgia for the (failed) socialist economic policies of our ineffective elected governments of the 1970s and ’90s.

This economic imperative wasn’t something that had occurred to me on that fateful Saturday four weeks earlier. I was in my hometown, Lahore, and there had been rumors all morning: an antagonized judiciary was going to rule against the president’s re-election; he was going to nullify the ruling by suspending the Constitution; army trucks were heading to Islamabad; lawyers and judges and human rights activists were being arrested across the country. By evening the popular TV channels were off the air, and the state-run channel was predictably demure when it promised an explanation from the president “very soon.”

It came a little after midnight. President Musharraf declared that a difficult law-and-order situation had forced him to take “emergent and extraordinary measures.” Pakistan was facing an unprecedented rise in militancy, and the armed forces could not tackle the menace with a vengeful judiciary and a sensationalistic press standing in their way. “This country,” he said in Urdu, “is a part of my heart.” His voice was rough with emotion.

I was listening to the radio broadcast with a friend, a student at the National College of Arts in Lahore. Her reaction was mostly skeptical. She shook her head, she rolled her eyes, she grunted sardonically when President Musharraf appealed to the West by citing an embattled Abraham Lincoln. But in the end she was contemplative. “Maybe he’s right,” she said. “I mean, what’s the alternative?”

We were parked in a car outside another friend’s house, where a meticulously planned Halloween party was starting up (it was three days after Halloween, but close enough for the Muslim world). We could hear the hoots of appreciation that accompanied Justin Timberlake’s album “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” We were the only ones waiting inside a car. Around us the stream of guests continued; angels and devils and sheiks of Araby glanced in our direction but didn’t stop to inquire. They knew. They had heard. They just weren’t willing to let another midnight broadcast jeopardize the weekend.

Only six months earlier, as seen from afar, my country had seemed on the verge of collapse. I had recently graduated from college and was in New York, following the flood of images that poured daily onto my computer screen: crowds following the fired chief justice on his countrywide campaign against the Musharraf regime; lawyers marching on the streets of Lahore, pumping angry fists; the stick-wielding, burqa-wearing students of the Jamia Hafsa madrassa holding Islamabad, the capital, virtually hostage and demanding nothing less than the imposition of Islamic law.

And Mr. Musharraf was to blame for it all — for firing the chief justice, for thrashing the lawyers who protested, for not imposing Shariah, for blocking the TV channels that every day broadcast these shrill cries for religious law, for acting too late to crush the madrassa uprising. Go Musharraf Go!

Yet when I returned to Lahore in August, I found it calmer than I had expected. Life went on, and the political grievances came from the urban middle classes. Most people had more immediate concerns, like the impossible price of wheat, or local bus fares that had more than quadrupled in the last few years.

Still, as time passed, I became more attuned to growing fears of the Islamist insurgency that was advancing from the north. Here, too, President Musharraf was to blame, for presiding during the outbreak (though, of course, his efforts to crush the insurgency were deemed equally unacceptable) and for belonging to the military, which had, along with Resident Evil America, created the Afghan jihad in the first place. It didn’t matter to the critics that this alliance — now called the global war on terrorism — had been re-formed precisely to fight the jihad. Go Musharraf Go Musharraf Go!

The president’s state-of-emergency decree was supposed to end the stalemate. But the government’s groping assault on civil society has only deepened the crisis. If it moves, stop it — this has been the government policy, resulting in blind arrests of teachers and journalists. At least twice in the last month lawyers have been tear-gassed and beaten. The police are everywhere: twice I was ejected from university campuses because I was carrying a camera.

Yet even the policemen have their doubts about the government’s approach — soon after the emergency was declared I visited a human rights advocate who was under house arrest. The squadron of policemen outside her gate let me pass without trouble. I later learned that they were asking for daily lectures on human rights from the woman they had come to silence.

And now, as the world knows, President Musharraf has finally removed his military uniform. He has promised to lift the emergency decree by Dec. 16, and to hold free and fair elections in January. In this, he is said to have the support of the military.

But does he have the support of anyone else? The opposition politicians have assumed their usual positions. Some have filed their nomination papers; others are threatening to boycott. No new political party has emerged from the crisis. We hear no new thoughts on dealing with the danger in our faces, the extremists, or the one under our feet, the economy. We are faced with the same options — thieves, bigots, autocrats, mullahs — and an increasingly indefensible Pervez Musharraf in the role of president.

Still, we will go to the ballot box, if only in the hope that some kind of reconciliation among the powers that be will bring us out of these “emergent” and “extraordinary” times. As my friend the art student put it: “Who knows when we’ll next get to vote?”

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