President-General Pervez Musharraf gave two reasons for suspending Pakistan’s Constitution for the second time in eight years. One was a rising tide of Islamic militancy. The other was an “interfering” judiciary that was making governance and the army’s “war on terror” impossible. He was lying on both counts.
True, Pakistan is under threat from a retrograde Islam. A native “Pakistan” Taliban now rules the tribal regions of Waziristan, backed by foreign militants linked to Al Qaeda. And North West Frontier Province districts like Swat are being overrun by radical clerics. But these insurgencies have been simmering since July, when commandos prized Islamabad’s Red Mosque from Islamic radicals and Musharraf broke a cease-fire with the Taliban in Waziristan. On neither occasion did he invoke special powers. He already had them. Similarly, Musharraf has been riled by “judicial activism” ever since he was forced by a mass, lawyer-led campaign to restore Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as Chief Justice in July. The General had sacked him in March, wary that Chaudhry might rule unconstitutional a second presidential term. Since his reinstatement, the Justice has issued rulings against the government, but none could be construed as a cause for martial law. What drew Musharraf’s sword was his fear that the Supreme Court would agree with petitions before it that his October re-election was invalid. “The Constitution is clear,” says Aitzaz Ahsan, who represented the petitioners. “No person can contest political office while in military service.”
Musharraf chose to impose martial law to ensure his survival, coating it in a sugar of “Islamic extremism” and a “politicized judiciary.” Will Pakistanis swallow it? Many lawyers say they won’t. Since the emergency, hundreds have taken to the streets, hoping their protest will snowball like the movement to reinstate Chaudhry. It’s going to be a much tougher fight this time around. In the first few days of martial law some 2,000 were detained, mainly civil society activists. The independent and electronic media have been gagged, and the Supreme Court has been purged. In the days after the decree, the opposition parties were conspicuous by their reticence, as were the masses. “The lawyers need support,” says analyst Tarik Fatemi. “This is not just a battle for the judiciary. It’s a fight for Pakistan’s soul.”