Students for a Free Pakistan
"Right now we're running on adrenalin," says Ammar over the phone. He only gives his first name. The police have been watching the more politically active students. They even seem to be tapping telephone lines. So the students try to take some precautions. Some have changed their cell phone numbers. When organizing protests and rallies, they use a separate number that cannot be traced. Only three to four people have a list of all the students who are involved in the Student Action Committee. These twenty-somethings have to dodge not just the police gaze but also parental concern. Ammar's parents, for instance, are only partly aware of their son's activities. They know about the blogging, but not that he has attended protests, the kind where people get arrested and taken to undisclosed jails.
Ammar was at one such rally three weeks ago. He was among the mass of lawyers who protested outside the Lahore High Court on November 5, and says that the brutality he saw shook him to his core. "It was unbearable to watch," he says. "It's very difficult to stay quiet. If you don't speak out now, it might be too late."
Matters came to a head when three LUMS faculty members were arrested. They had attended a meeting of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a highly respected body. They were released a week later, but the LUMS students decided they had to do something. The Emergency Times was the result.
They were not the only ones. The students at FAST-NU, the Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Technology, a technical university with a campus in Lahore, followed suit with their "Fast Rising" blog and newsletter. A wave of similar websites and blogs followed, from the commentary of academics to coverage of the media blackout to legal analysis. Alumni of Pakistani universities scattered in places from Berlin to Boston contributed their stories, poems and their support to a movement that has galvanized a previously complacent student body.
Pakistani student societies in American universities such as Columbia and Harvard have organized seminars, written letters to newspapers editors and congressmen and even published articles about it. And everywhere, on the street corners in Pakistan, in classrooms all over the world, people are talking, debating, engaging with the political process.
Zeeshan Suhail, 26, a recent graduate of the City University of New York, and the author of one of those articles, was one of many who initially welcomed the dictator. After two decades of democracy, he says, people were fed up with crooked politicians.
"No one was concerned about the fact that the country had changed from a democracy to a dictatorship," he says. "Musharraf came to power talking of moderation, foreign policy imperatives and bringing the good side of Pakistan to the world. It took years for me to realize that the place of an army officer is in the barracks, not in the president's house."
Samar Abbas, 23, who graduated from Yale University earlier this year and has been in Pakistan for the last month, is another of the converted. For him, as for most of his generation, it's the first time he's ever been politically active. "There is definitely the feeling that we are living at a very critical juncture," he writes. "For this generation, this is our first shot at impacting Pakistan, and we have a very good chance."
Ali Almani, 26, a Harvard law student who will graduate this December and plans to return to Pakistan to practice law, is an exception. He opposed Musharraf from the very beginning. "Each time you have a military regime," he explains, "it exacerbates the conditions that requires the military to intervene, it weakens political institutions. And when politicians get a chance to rule, it's a big question whether they'll be able to make something of it." Almani doesn't approve of the way Musharraf is pitted against the opposition candidates in much of the mainstream media. It's reductive, he says. "Instead," he argues, "what the debate should be is whether you want to make the politicians accountable to the military or to the people."