Students for a Free Pakistan
On Thursday, November 29, Pervez Musharraf was sworn in for a new five-year term as the President of Pakistan. The day before, the general tearfully handed over command of the army to his handpicked successor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Musharraf now claims he will also end the state of emergency on December 16.
These gestures may hold out some hope for the restoration of true democracy in Pakistan, but on the ground not much has changed. For the moment, the state is under martial law. The curbs imposed on the media since November 3 have not been lifted, and the judiciary and the constitution have not been restored. Even if Musharraf fulfills his promise to lift the state of emergency, he is not stepping down from his position as dealmaker in Pakistan any time soon.
Little wonder, then, that the growing student movement in Pakistan held its biggest protest to date the day after Musharraf's swearing-in ceremony. In cities around the world--from Oslo to London to New York to Lahore--students rallied at roughly 2 pm and called for all political parties to boycott the January elections in order to expose them for the sham they will likely be.
In the weeks since Musharraf imposed a state of emergency, students in cities across the country have awakened from their political slumber. They have come a long way since 1999, when the general seized power in a bloodless coup. Then, the only people out on the streets were supporters of Nawaz Sharif, the ousted, democratically elected Prime Minister. This time, they are out in throngs--the lawyers, the journalists, the civil society activists and importantly, the students.
"If not now, WHEN? If not us, WHO?
"There is no neutrality anymore; SILENCE IS CONSENT. SPEAK!"
These words are part of a call to action issued by the newly formed Student Action Committee of Lahore, a coalition of students from fifteen universities and colleges in that city. It was created to organize the student body in their protests against Musharraf's state of emergency and consolidation of power.
The last time that students rose so powerfully in protest was in 1968, and they were instrumental in toppling General Ayub Khan (one of Musharraf's dictatorial predecessors). But when Musharraf claimed power in 1999, many breathed a sigh of relief. From 1988-99, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif both came to power twice. During this period--what Musharraf in his autobiography calls the "dreadful decade of democracy"-- Pakistan became one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Unemployment soared and cynicism held sway in the minds of ordinary Pakistanis. Musharraf promised change. He promised to get rid of corruption, to tackle economic reforms, and he was a moderate. It seemed like a promising recipe at the time. But in the eight years that he has been in power, he has broken his word countless times. The elections he held were nowhere near free and fair, and according to Transparency International, Pakistan's corruption rating has actually gotten worse by three percentage points since 1998, the year before Musharraf took power.
Living under a state of emergency, it's not surprising that many who once welcomed the general now agitate for his removal. And standing in the frontlines--but not the spotlight--of those protests are the students of Pakistan.
Ammar, 21, is a student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), one of the most prestigious institutions in Pakistan. An economics and political science major, he was one of a handful of LUMS students who started a blog, The Emergency Times, two days after the imposition of martial law. At first, it began as a forum for discussion and a means to educate people, especially students, about the legal ramifications of the emergency. In the face of the media blackouts imposed after November 3, students starved of news reportage turned to blogs such as this one for their daily dose. The Emergency Times alone gets roughly 25,000 hits a day. (Not bad for a country where only 7.2 percent of 160 million people have access to the Internet.) Its printed version, a pamphlet that's photocopied and distributed by student volunteers in dozens of campuses across the major cities every other day, reaches as many as 200,000 pairs of eyes.