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Pakistan: "The Liberal Dictator"

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Length: 3:19

From left, Afia Zia and Nazish Brohi, founding members of the "People's Resistance" group at their weekly candlelight vigil outside the Karachi Press Club.

Editor's Note: When President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule in early November, fired his entire Supreme Court and arrested hundreds of judges and lawyers, mass protests followed, and the country was thrown into political turmoil. To take the current mood of the country, we asked our long-time correspondent in Pakistan, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, to write a series of diary dispatches in the run up to the elections Musharraf says will take place on January 8. In her first diary entry, Obaid-Chinoy reports from Karachi, where, she says, the city is alive with political activity for the first time in 20 years.

I landed in Karachi to find a city galvanized by politics. It's been more than two decades since civil society has made any effort to engage in the political process. In fact, my generation, those in their 20s and 30s, has never seen such fervor in the streets. These are exhilarating times for Pakistan, both for those who oppose President Musharraf and for those who support him. Debates once held over dinner tables inside people's homes are now being heard everywhere, from the pages of Facebook to blogs and radio shows.

On the first evening back in my hometown, I was invited to a meeting of individuals calling themselves the "People's Resistance." They came together soon after President Musharraf imposed the state of emergency on November 3, and their members are doctors, lawyers, women's rights activists and journalists from this middle class neighborhood. During the past month, they had been organizing flash protests, candlelight vigils and demonstrations, often using graffiti to get their message across. "One coup per dictator" and "Go Musharraf Go" are two of their most used slogans.

I couldn't help thinking that inadvertently President Musharraf's emergency decree had been good for Pakistan. It had stirred up the dormant middle and upper classes, which seldom took part in the electoral process or even bothered to vote.

The agenda that evening was simple: Should the People's Resistance boycott the upcoming elections or not? The 20 or so members present launched into a lively debate, where the women were far more vocal in opposing Musharraf than the men. In the end, they unanimously voted to boycott the upcoming elections if the ousted [Supreme Court] judges were not reinstated and current conditions persisted. [During the first week in December, Musharraf renewed his pledge to end the state of emergency on December 16 in preparation for the January 8 elections.]

I couldn't help thinking that inadvertently President Musharraf's emergency decree had been good for Pakistan. It had stirred up the dormant middle and upper classes, which seldom took part in the electoral process or even bothered to vote. Now they were asking tough questions of the state.

"Look, we have no romantic illusions about the political parties -- we know they are corrupt and nepotistic," Nazish Brohi, a social policy researcher and founder of the group, told me after the meeting. "We just want the system to work. Judges can't be thrown out at the whim of one man. If we allow the system to work, then it will produce leaders who we can elect in the future."

When I asked her if democracy could work in Pakistan, she responded with certainty: Yes, it could.

"I want to debunk the myth that an illiterate population will not be able to elect good leaders," she said. "Education is not a prerequisite for intelligent voting."

Activist Tarzia Mohuddin with her teenage daughters Michelle and Ghanwa at the vigil.

Another woman at the meeting, sociologist and columnist Afia Zia, acknowledged that Musharraf had advanced the cause of women in Pakistan. "It's been funny because General Musharraf has been a liberal dictator," she said. "He's given us a lot of rights." But she insisted that the military and Musharraf must "get out of politics" for democracy to have a chance.

Outside, I spoke to a young man who was closing his shop for the evening. Adil Khawar had heard the chants "Go Musharraf Go" coming from the meeting across the street. When I asked him about the current state of the country and the upcoming elections, he looked at me with a wry smile. "I don't know what democracy is because I haven't really experienced it, but I do feel a sense of freedom," he said, adding, "I feel for President Musharraf -- he is up against a lot, and I know that he means well for this country." Then, pausing, he said, "Maybe we don't deserve him."

Later, while surfing through Facebook, where many young Pakistanis gather to talk about the political future of their country, I found at least as many groups for Musharraf as against him. Students as young as 14 were sharing their opinions under headings such as "We choose Musharraf but oppose emergency in Pakistan" and "A Turnip would make a better Head of State than Musharraf."

A young musician called Imran Qadir told me that a number of his friends were joining rallies and protesting, but he supported Musharraf because he'd given many freedoms to Pakistanis.

A young musician called Imran Qadir told me that a number of his friends were joining rallies and protesting, but he supported President Musharraf because he'd given many freedoms to Pakistanis. "You know, when I was 14, you couldn't wear jeans on television. Nawaz Sharif's government was so anti-Westernization that if I wanted my music video aired on state-run television, I would have to heavily censor it. But in the last eight years, we have over 40 television channels; I can say what I want; I can wear what I want and will not be censored." But Qadir said he was considering moving away from Pakistan because of the uncertainty: "I don't want [former prime ministers] Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif to come into power, because they are not democratic in any way. They are despots, who are power hungry and will do anything to get what they want. In fact, I won't be surprised if they turn back the clock for our generation."

The debate has polarized Pakistan's urban professional classes, many of whom sympathize with President Musharraf and have nothing but disdain for their democratic choices.

Another young woman, Sabina Ahmed, told me that she had never felt so passionate about politics in her life: "President Musharraf is a dictator. He may be liberal, but he is as power hungry as the rest. He has ruined this country's judiciary and removed our best judges from power. It is going to take the country at least a decade to recover."

The debate has polarized Pakistan's urban professional classes, many of whom sympathize with President Musharraf and have nothing but disdain for their democratic choices. They credit the president with holding economic growth at 7.5 percent and for attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment to the country. But they also feel that he has crossed the line by removing the judiciary and silencing the media.

At a candlelight vigil the next evening, many expressed that they wanted the president to resign immediately. Tarzia Mohuddin had brought along her teenage daughters. Holding a sign that read, "Freedom of Thought and Expression," she told me that Musharraf had disappointed her. "He started out so well," she said. "But now he has destroyed everything he claimed he stood for. How can there be democracy when he has destroyed the very institutions that could uphold it?"

Video Credits:
Camera: Mahera Omar, Sohail Ahmed

From Our Files

Pakistan: Disappeared
Amina Masood Janjua was an ordinary Pakistani housewife, proud of her country and loyal to its military. But all that changed in July 2005, when her husband never came home. FRONTLINE/World correspondent David Montero reports on how her campaign to find her husband sparked national protests challenging Pakistan's feared intelligence agency, the ISI, and led to events that would severely test Musharraf's power.

Pakistan: On a Razor's Edge
Follow FRONTLINE/World reporter and producer Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy to her native Pakistan as she investigates the clashes between President Musharraf, a key U.S. ally, and the increasingly powerful Islamic fundamentalists who oppose him. Extensive background and links are included with the story, as is a series of short interviews with some of Pakistan's leading voices.

Pakistan: Student Resistance
Following Pakistan's state of emergency, FRONTLINE/World reporter Joe Rubin talked via web cam to a student in Lahore whose campus was the first to protest Musharraf's crackdown.


faiz alnajdi - Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
A good report; this gave us some real feels right from the streets. Keep writing!!!

Shaheen Ashraf - Montreal, Quebec
Finally, getting the correct scoop from inside Pakistan and am glad that the YOUTH are participating so well. We have a CHANCE of survival. Just do NOT look at your Leaders with a skewed perception. Give them a chance, allow them to Govern, give them POSITIVE FEEDBACK and HELP them to give YOU a GOOD Country.

Mehul Kamdar - Chicago, IL
Pakistan has little option other than to use its army to clamp down on the extremists causing mayhem in some parts of the country. These are crazy people and their brutal behavior in intimidating those whom they dislike is frightening. That said, it does seem as if President Musharraf's government cracked down on the wrong people as well - the liberals whom it should have worked with and whose support it could easily have gained against the killers in the Northwest. But then, again, that should have been expected. Unlike elected governments that are duty-bound to have a finger on the public pulse, regimes that derive their authority from means other than public support usually make mistakes simply because they have no idea what people whom they are not answerable to want.The peaceful protests and the new vigilance over people's rights and freedoms are very welcome. These always lead to positive change in which all decent people benefit. Hopefully, peace and good government would soon come in in Pakistan especially with elections due in the very near future.

London, United Kingdom
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a brilliant journalist. She illuminates the experiences of real people and how they are interacting with the events of the day.

Really interesting to see inside this group of dissident professionals. Of course, I understand why they would oppose Musharraf's crackdown on lawyers and judges. But I wonder what would happen to these seemingly Westernized, upper middle class people if Islamic fundamentalists took over?