Another step back

IT WILL be distinctly more difficult for Pakistani security forces to contain the next wave of protests should PPP loyalists take to the streets as the Musharraf regime changes the colour of the state of emergency by placing Benazir Bhutto under house arrest for 30 days.

As the sea of people that came to greet her in Karachi upon her arrival demonstrated, the Bhutto name still resonates loudly, even though it is yet to be put to a renewed test beyond her support base in Sindh. And if she can engineer a similar storm from her confinement in Islamabad, police forces will not be able to repeat the merciless crackdown they unleashed protesting lawyers recently, especially considering BB’s recent claim of putting more people on the streets than the establishment has space for in jails.

Significantly, the government’s frantic blocking of the PPP procession scheduled in Islamabad has resulted in a clear drawing of crucial battle lines, even though it has taken a good week coming. There is no longer any doubt about the intent of the biggest political party of the land, and a head-on clash is now imminent as General Musharraf’s deputies continue with their reassurances abroad that all will be well soon in Pakistan.

Now should push come to shove, Musharraf will cut an increasingly awkward figure about the emergency having been imposed to deal with the growing unrest in the tribal areas. That is so since the attention would remain fixed on the civil society while international stakeholders would question the rationale behind swapping dozens of convicted felons for government troops held hostage in the north.

Furthermore, growing resistance from political forces would compound the government’s catch-22 dilemma, since bending either way would make the PR exercise seem more and more hollow. If the unrest spreads, Musharraf will not be able to revoke the emergency, even if his own personal interests demand it.

Prudence would require not relying completely on the stick to pave the way forward. The February 15 election decision should have been accompanied with a fixed date for removing the uniform and restoring normalcy in the country. But as things stand, it is difficult to appreciate most decisions that have come from Islamabad since the fateful November 3 decision to resort to the technical Martial Law.

There can be no other way about it, the sooner Musharraf turns to damage control rather than wriggling to avoid the axe the better. And that would have to start with ending the emergency, releasing thousands arrested and removing the unfair choke on the media.

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