Pakistan is on the clock. “A fast-expanding Islamic insurgency…threatens to devour the country,” wrote The New York Times this month. The 175 million-strong nation has been on deathwatch since at least February, when The Atlantic Council sounded the alarm that Pakistan was headed for turbulence within twelve months. Recently, General Petraeus’s advisor shortened the time frame to within six months. “We could see the collapse of the Pakistani state,” said David Kilcullen. “Al Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover—that would dwarf everything we’ve seen in the war on terror today.”
Tick tock. Boom.
It would be difficult to know from recent articles that Pakistanis scored a stunning mass-political victory only a few weeks ago. Instead, the press has been parroting Washington’s conventional wisdom on Pakistan as a country coming apart at the seams. There is no civil society here, only loons and goons that need to be bombed. The U.S. has based its actions on this decades-old story, and that has now helped produce the very realities Washington claims only to describe.
The only ones, it appears, who are cheerfully ignorant of the impending apocalypse are Pakistanis. As Kilcullen described this nightmare, Pakistanis were celebrating the reinstatement of their Chief Justice to the Supreme Court after week-long mass protests. “Fairytale endings are indeed possible in Pakistan,” declared the country’s oldest English-language daily. That morning, the national flag was re-hoisted at Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s home, marking his return to the bench.
There was dancing in the streets. There were rose petals.
It was the culmination of a two-year long struggle that began in 2007, when then-Army General and President Pervez Musharraf unconstitutionally sacked the judiciary.
Evoking Gandhi’s long march against British colonial rule, thousands of Pakistanis marched across the country to the capital, Islamabad, this March to demand that the government restore the judiciary. It was the second such mass protest. Last June, protesters took a similar route in the first long march.
Historically not known for its dissent, Pakistan’s judiciary had posed constant problems for Musharraf. First, it blocked the government’s privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills. Then, Chief Justice Chaudhry began investigating cases of missing persons who, evidence suggests, were forcibly disappeared by Pakistan’s infamous spy agencies.
At its critical core, the democracy movement is an amalgam of lawyers, businessmen, students, workers, and yes, journalists. But those who marched include a mixture of political stripes and various socioeconomic classes. They poured in time, effort, and—when it seemed as though the government may not hesitate to use violence—courage.
Their goal has been deceptively simple: the reinstatement of judges. But the “debate is much larger than restoring the judiciary,” law professor Osama Siddique told me when I met him last year in his sun-flooded office at the elite LUMS University in Lahore. Siddique, who teaches constitutional law, explained that the movement is, at heart, “about whether this country can actually have a democratic government for a change.” It is a movement for the rule of law.
That goal fostered new relationships and mobilized diverse networks which turned into a cross-class and broad-based movement. It drew people like Samad Khurram, a key student activist who had no initial political inclinations. And it finally spilled onto the streets as protests.
“The feeling on the ground was brilliant, very fearless,” said exhilarated student activist Adaner Usmani on the first day despite arrests and the government’s ban on gatherings. Protesters expected the police to block them. “But we were really surprised that we didn’t get any resistance” until quite late, said Karachi dentist and popular blogger, Dr. Awab Alvi during a phone interview. By the third day, Information Minister Sherry Rehman had resigned in protest. Others followed. By the fifth day, Prime Minister Yusef Raza Gilani had conceded.
And that’s how the government lost to a democracy movement.
But while the civil society networks fostered by this movement aren’t going to disappear, it has received scant attention from the American press beyond the street protests. To the extent that it was covered, articles discussed this civil society movement largely in terms of the possibility of chaos, and as a diversion from dealing with the insurgency.