The countrywide protests that began in Pakistan when President General Pervez Musharraf declared the country’s Chief Justice (CJ), Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, “non-functional” on March 9 are continuing, with no sign of the crisis being resolved in the foreseeable future. For the CJ’s supporters, the ideal outcome would be the withdrawal of charges against him at the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) – a forum for internal accountability of the judiciary – and his restoration to his position; in other words, a return to the status quo existing before March 9. The opposition politicians, who are desperately trying to take advantage of the government’s self-inflicted wounds, have gone further, demanding that the military to go back to their barracks, relinquishing all power to politicians and restoring democracy.
Even the lesser of these demands is unlikely to be met, both because Musharraf’s main object remains to secure election as president for another term from the present National Assembly (see Crescent International, April 2007), and because to back down now would show embarrassing weakness. He is thus caught in a dilemma. He cannot afford to drop the case against the CJ, but by his pursuing it the protests against him could escalate into a popular uprising which might destabilise his regime. The government’s response has been to buy time by delaying each of the SJC’s hearings as much as possible – usually a week to ten days – in the hope either that lawyers and politicians will lose interest, or that a backdoor compromise can be reached with the CJ. Both options may be wishful thinking, however. Musharraf must be aware that the US, his main supporter in power, could decide to back a different horse by siding with reform-minded politicians, thus pulling the rug from under him.
Chaudhry’s defence team, meanwhile, went on the offensive at the Council’s hearing on April 18. After the SJC rejected their motion questioning the impartiality of three of its members, they then challenged the authority of the president to file a case against the CJ in the Council, and sought a full court hearing, comprising all judges of the Supreme Court, instead of just the SJC. They also called for the hearing to be held in public instead of behind closed doors. Faced with this bold move, the government – already on the defensive - was shaken to the extent that its ministers seem not to dare to appear in the media to defend the government’s position.
In the meantime the Chief Justice has been addressing various bar associations, extolling the virtues of the independence and supremacy of the law and judiciary, being treated as a hero and provoking increasing defiance of the government. Everywhere hegoes, lawyers boycott courts and take out processions in his support. In Hyderabad on April 15, a reception in his honour was attended by 15 Sindh High Court judges. A week later, on April 21, the Peshawar High Court’s chief justice and ten other judges out of twelve were present on the occasion when Justice Chaudhry spoke on the “role of the judiciary in good governance” after administering the oath to the new office-bearers of the Peshawar High Court Bar Association. There is also support from outside the legal fraternity; wherever he goes, people line up to greet his motorcade, and shower him with flowers. Apparently a central part of the establishment, and a highly unlikely figure to become a popular hero, Chaudhry has become a symbol of defiance against the military government and a rallying point for the political opposition, as well as the legal community.
The reality is that his case has emerged at a time when Pakistanis have become increasingly restless under Musharraf’s rule, and open to opportunities to make their feelings known. The independence of the judiciary has become a good rallying cause for people with many different reasons for opposing the government. For Musharraf, the on-going controversy is just one of several problems he is facing. Just as serious is the situation in the north-west of the country, where his military is fighting for control against Talibanand pro-Taliban mujahideen whose power is growing in the NWFP, and are also gaining support and influence elsewhere in the country. In another challenge to Musharraf’s power, Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, a major pro-Taliban Islamic institution, last month declared his intention to establish Islamic courts to deal with immorality. He also threatened to send suicide-bombers against the government if it acted against him. Although many Pakistanis share his concerns for the country’s moral climate, the Taliban’s methods and record have raised concerns about the possible impact in Pakistan. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, the Shari‘ah and the Islamic movement have been discredited by a shari‘ah-centric interpretation of Islam, and the harsh enforcement of the penal aspects of the shari‘ah without consideration for the broader social and political context, people’s rights, or to due process to ensure that justice is done without further injustices being perpetrated. The government has promised to act against this challenge in its own backyard, but risks creating yet another focus for popular anger.
The problem in Pakistan is that there is no credible Islamic leadership to offer guidance at this crucial political juncture. The Jama‘at-e Islami remains the country’s largest Islamic movement, but it is still hampered by a lack of vision and a tendency to react to events rather to lead from the front. It also suffers from a reputation of being politically pragmatic rather than Islamically visionary. Nonetheless, it offers the main institutional framework for Islamic work in the country, even if it tends to absorb the energies of genuinely committed young Muslims, rather than focussing them.
April was exceptionally hot in most of Pakistan; hours of power failures in the sweltering heat added to the sense of a country in crisis. The weaknesses of the forces ranged against him may be Musharaf’s only consolation in what is likely to be a very long and difficult summer