Two weeks have transpired since Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf instated a "State of Emergency" in the country, yet the way Pakistanis have taken to the streets—all over the world—makes one wonder whether we have been under martial law for a decade. The fervor, the energy, the hope the people have reminds me why I choose to remain optimistic about the prospects for Pakistan, despite General Musharraf's repeated and systematic efforts at snatching my idealism away from me.
Musharraf took power over nine years ago in a bloodless coup and promised us "enlightened moderation," yet all we saw was the army become the wealthiest and most corrupt institution in the country. He promised us peace, yet we've experienced the most terrorist attacks in any nine year period since the country was born. He promised us democracy, and needless to say, we've yet to see it.
As is clearly visible, Musharraf has no intention of empowering his people. Consolidation of power in the hands of the military has been his sole raison d'etre and he has worked tirelessly for it. The results are before us.
Out of the $10 billion of aid the United States has provided Pakistan as part of its post-9/11 aid package, over $5 billion has gone to the military, supposedly to fight the "war on terror." However, it has played the unintended role of engorging the bank accounts of army officers. Education and healthcare combined have received less than three percent of the national GDP.
Now, in the name of national security, President Musharraf is rounding up hundreds of lawyers, activists and students because he says the judiciary is meddling too much in national affairs. He must know all too well that an empowered populace is the greatest threat to a leader who rules with an iron fist.
As soon as word spread all over the world about the heinous actions the President had taken, protests were being planned and resources pooled to see how expatriates and Pakistanis alike could do something to rectify this great wrong. From the 1990's onwards, Pakistani people have been very complacent about the political situation in their country. Civil society rarely mobilized or presented a coherent and unified voice, either in favor, or against something.
All my stereotypes and perceptions were shattered, though, earlier this year when the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Iftikhar Ahmed Chaudhary, was forced out of his position. People took to the streets like never before. They did so knowing full well that they may never see the light of day again. When the State of Emergency was declared two weeks ago, it was the second time this year that my faith in Pakistani civil society was restored—the first time being when Justice Chaudhary was sacked, and the second time being now. Lawyers, activists and civil society took to the streets then, and they are doing so today, as you read this.
The first protest that I received news of was being organized by a group of Columbia University students. Within one day, emails had gone out to hundreds of people and before you could say "Go, Musharraf, go!" these youths had officially made history, and headlines. Many news outlets broadcast the message and hopes for democracy of the protesters far and wide.
One may ask: why do these protests matter? Will they make a difference? Where do we go from here? It is pertinent to mention that these protests have been going on fairly frequently and have been organized by students, young professionals, and community leaders. These people may have vested interests in certain political parties and electoral outcomes, but the one objective that binds them universally is their quest to see democracy returned to Pakistan. Nothing more, nothing less.
My earliest memory of Musharraf being remotely democratic in his tenure as President of Pakistan was when he called for a referendum to gather confidence for his presidency in early 2002. But the key difference between an election and a referendum is that you have options in the former, not in the latter. Needless to say, fraud allegations were made, voter turnout numbers were distorted and most ludicrous of all, Musharraf went down in history as being perhaps the only person to get a 98% approval rate as a result of the referendum. My friends and I had heard of folks who cast ballots fifteen times or more!
Many in the west have been troubled and dumbfounded by the images coming from Pakistan recently. Every time one turns the news on, there are violent images of protesters battling police and being dragged off the streets and hauled into police vans. Is it media propaganda? If so, to whose benefit? Who knows whether they will be released or court-martialed under the new law just passed by Musharraf?
A more potent fear many Pakistanis have is about the prospects of the country under Benazir Bhutto, if indeed she does return to power. This is an apprehension I share, because I grew up in a Pakistan that was ravaged by Bhutto. There was so much corruption that Bhutto's husband has been referred to as "Mr. 10 percent" by critics because that was the amount he was rumored to skim off of business dealings between the government and other entities. After having been convicted of corruption by several European countries (where the Bhutto family had numerous bank accounts) and not having the self-respect to appear in a court of law, Bhutto is back again—with a vengeance.
Most certainly, there is a leadership deficit in Pakistani politics. How tragic that the Pakistani citizenry had no choice but to elect leaders like Sharif and Bhutto twice in the 1990's, knowing full well that their track records were unbecoming of the stature of any elected leader. The system is so polluted that in my conversations with Pakistani youth, none consider public service as a viable or appealing career option. Leave it for the rich and privileged, their parents say.
The future is uncertain and full of trials and tribulations, but the people of Pakistan remain fearless. After all, when decades of a 60 year old country's history are spent under dictators, all one is left with is hope. For every baton that hits the body of a demonstrator, my heart knows his tears aren't of pain, but emancipation. For every protester locked in a dark, dingy cell far from home, one hundred new ones are born and take to the streets to protect what is at stake. For every Pakistani who once loved Musharraf, there are thousands more yearning for the return of a democratically-elected people's representative.
This is not a dream I am writing about. It is the story of my adolescence under Musharraf's rule and it is the future of Pakistan. What I am seeing every day here in New York is testimony to the fact that come what may, only the will of the people will reign supreme. There is only one way forward, and I see it in the eyes of all those who have not forgotten the dream of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Unity, faith and discipline—Jinnah's motto for his countrymen. Three simple words; three simple reminders for Musharraf.
Zeeshan Suhail lives in New York City and is a Board Member for Americans for Informed Democracy and the Muslim Consultative Network.