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Pakistani Lawyers Protest Musharraf’s Government

September 6, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Margaret, you were at the Supreme Court today. What’s the latest news bearing on the future of President Musharraf?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jeff, the Supreme Court was definitely where the action was today on that question. And no cameras are allowed in the courtroom, but I did go, and Chief Justice Chaudhry, the man who Musharraf tried to suspend in March and that sparked these nationwide protests of lawyers and ultimately of average Pakistanis, he was presiding, and the seven justices sitting up on this very imposing bench and the lawyers, including the attorney general down below.

The issue before the court today was whether Musharraf can — uniform or not — whether it’s constitutional for him to run again. And the challenge that had been filed, actually, by one of the Islamist parties, Islamic religious parties, was that, under the constitution, you’re disqualified from running for president if you’ve held a government-paid job any time in the last two years. And, of course, as army chief of staff, he still holds a government-paid job.

So the lawyers were going back and forth. At one point, the attorney general said to the bench — well, “Lords” is what they say, not “Your honor” — “We need a month to properly research that constitutional issue and get an answer to you.” And Chaudhry just looked down and essentially said, “I don’t think so.” He said, “I could give you a week. How much time do you really need?”

And then there was a lot of back-and-forth, and they took a break. And when they came back, the attorney general said, “We’re ready to go forward. We believe strongly that the president has every right to run for re-election under the constitution.”

So then a long hearing ensued, and it recessed without a resolution. But there was no doubt, just watching the dynamics in the courtroom, that this bench has asserted itself and that everyone, including Musharraf’s attorney general, fully recognizes it.

The role of the court

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret, the role of the court here is very interesting. You reported on it a bit in your piece last night, but how much power does it have? How much is its power accepted by the various sides in all this?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that is a fascinating question, because it is uncharted territory. For 55 at least of the last 60 years, though there's been a Supreme Court and in the constitution it looks like an independent branch of government, it has really been either, in the analysis of many Pakistanis here, just too totally in bed with whoever's in power or at times other prime ministers and presidents have really tried to clip its power, and it's always succumbed.

So when Musharraf tried to fire Chaudhry, the lawyers involved, a couple of them said to me, "We felt it was an attack on all of us, that we're all part of this sort of judiciary legal community." And they just pushed back and were stunned when they got out on the streets to find all of these average Pakistanis joining them.

Now they say they feel tremendously emboldened, they feel a tremendous sense of responsibility -- and the justices do, too -- to continue being accountable and making the government be accountable. But it is uncharted territory. It's unclear, really, how much a power beyond ruling on constitutional questions this court can assert.

Forming a deal with Benazir Bhutto

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in the meantime, while the court takes its actions, is there any news on the potential power-sharing agreement between President Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto? Is there any more you've been able to glean from people there about the state of Musharraf's political support?

MARGARET WARNER: No, Jeff, there really is nothing new. That is, Benazir Bhutto is down in Dubai. She's been talking with emissaries from President Musharraf's government. If you talk to people in both camps -- I check in with them everyday, they both say, "We're close," but we've been hearing that for a week.

Last night, it's been confirmed by people in the government that Musharraf did have a meeting with his party leaders trying to sell them on some sort of package, but what exactly was in that package depends on whom you talk to. But as of right now, it's after 9 at night here, there is still no deal.

Musharraf's reaction to rulings

JEFFREY BROWN: What about people within the president's circle? Have you got any more information on how he might react if the court rules against him?

MARGARET WARNER: Nobody knows for sure, and that is the great guessing game here in Pakistan. There's one school of thought among people who know him that he really thinks he's indispensable and that he'll do anything almost to stay in power.

And so there are different scenarios under which that would play out. For instance, he could dissolve the national assemblies, which would automatically postpone all the elections for at least 90 days, or the more draconian step would be to impose martial law, which would suspend every institution, including the courts. The military would run it all. But then there's the question of whether the military would be with him.

The other school of thought -- and I've heard it from a few people who say they're in a position to know -- that he has talked about, at least, that there's the option of just hanging it up. If the court rules against him, saying, "I've given Pakistan eight great years. I've got the economy back on track. I've freed the media. I'm fighting terrorism, and it's time for someone else."

And in the end, of course, it is President Musharraf who's going to have to decide which way to go. After the hearing today, these two lawyers, who are great friends but on opposite sides of this issue, invited me to go to tea in the lawyers' lounge. And the first lawyer who's actually helping the government in the case, I asked him that very question. Would Musharraf go along with or would he comply with the court if the court says he just can't legally run again? And he said, "President Musharraf has always complied with the court."

Then I asked the other lawyer, an older man who very proudly told me he'd gone to Harvard Law School, I said, "Well, do you think the army would be with Musharraf if he defied the court and tried to impose martial law?" And he said, "I think, if the army has to choose between Pakistan and the general, the army will choose Pakistan."

But, you know, that and a nickel won't get you a cup of coffee in the lawyers' lounge, so, you know, nobody really knows. And as I said, again, it is totally up to Musharraf at this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Margaret Warner in Pakistan, thanks again.