Pakistan rally, unexpectedly huge, presses judges' cause

Pakistani lawyers and civil society members take part in the "Long March", on Friday in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
Pakistani lawyers and civil society members take part in the "Long March", on Friday in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. B.K. Bangash / AP

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Mullahs and communists, and it seemed everything in between, came out in Pakistan Friday in a massive rally against President Pervez Musharraf, seeking to force the government to restore the judges fired by the U.S.-backed president.

In a huge challenge to Musharraf, and also to the newly elected government, tens of thousands of ordinary Pakistanis confounded all expectations by coming out in noisy, excited support of an independent judiciary.

The Pakistan People's Party, which leads the coalition government, has been resisting the reinstatement of the 60 judges removed by Musharraf in November, suggesting that the issue did not resonate with most voters.

"Musharraf's bluster, backed by the American administration, that caused this situation to continue in a stalemate," said Aitzaz Ahsan, the charismatic leader of the lawyers' movement, in an interview on top of his campaign truck, as it crawled through the streets of Rawalpindi. "I think that stalemate has now been broken."

Thousands of cars choked Rawalpindi, the penultimate stop of a "Long March" that started a thousand miles away in the southern city of Karachi on Monday. Rawalpindi is the headquarters of the Pakistan army, the ultimate arbiter of politics in the country, and also the base for Musharraf, the former army chief.

The rally passed within a few hundred yards of the president's home, reverberating with cries of "Go, Musharraf, Go" and "Hang Musharraf". The cavalcade finally rolled into the outskirts of Islamabad at around 11 p.m. local time for a rally in front of parliament, having gathered strength in each city along the route.

The People's Party, which came to power after elections in February, has repeatedly promised to restore the judges, led by deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, but has so far come up with increasingly complex formulations in what many have seen as delaying tactics.

It is thought that the procrastination has been as a result of pressure exerted by Musharraf, along with — it is alleged by the lawyers — intervention by Washington on the president's behalf. The second biggest party in the coalition, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, walked out in protest and has now joined the lawyers on the streets.

"I've been in politics for 25 years and I've never seen anything like this," said Nisar Ali Khan, one of the most senior members of Sharif's party, who relinquished a ministership when he quit the government last month.

"If there was any doubt which side the people of Pakistan are on, it has been removed today," said Khan, who was at the rally in Rawalpindi.

Pakistan's judicial crisis started in March last year when Musharraf first tried to dismiss the chief justice. The lawyers' movement was spawned by a campaign to protect Chaudhry, with the black-suited attorneys turning themselves into a potent street force. Musharraf's patience finally snapped in November, when he fired the chief justice and 60 other independent-minded superior court judges.

There had been a widely held view that the lawyers' campaign had run out of steam and that the Long March would be weakly supported, thereby signalling the end of the movement as a center of power.

But the strength in numbers and the enthusiasm of the crowd on Friday was a major surprise and is likely to have rocked the government and the presidency, pointing to further political instability ahead if the judges issue continues to fester.

"The writing is on the wall for Musharraf and the government," said political activist Tahira Abdullah. "What kind of revolution do they want? Off with their heads? This anger can be channelled in the wrong way."

On the streets of Rawalpindi, it was part protest, part carnival.

A kaleidoscope of political parties and interest groups, together with regular Pakistanis of all social classes, gathered to blow their car horns, sing, chant, wave flags and banners. They hung out of cars, sat on the roofs of buses and poured onto the roadsides.

Bearded Muslim hardliners mingled with the rest of the political spectrum, including one group, the International Socialist Party of Peoples' Resistance, which even used the image of Che Guevara on their posters in the cause of Pakistan's judiciary. The anti-Musharraf feeling was often matched by anti-Americanism.

"Just one person, a general (Musharraf) has captured the country. He has ruined it," said Kurshid Ahmed Khan, a doctor on the route in Rawalpindi. "He is an agent of the American government."

A car mechanic, Mohammed Ibrahim, further down the road in Rawalpindi, said: "We have come to save the country. If this does not work, we will fight a war."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)