[Image from the NY Times]
The Long March began from Karachi and Quetta yesterday amid further police crackdowns, reports of torture, and numerous arrests. According to BBC News today, “Authorities in Pakistan’s north-west have banned political gatherings and a protest convoy [led by Supreme Court Bar Association president Ali Ahmed Kurd] has been halted in Sindh as a crackdown on activists spreads. The BBC quoted Kurd, who strongly condemned the Sindh government for halting their peaceful march, adding, “We will try to reach Islamabad by other routes and appeal to all Pakistanis to reach Islamabad in groups or as individuals by any possible means. This action of the government has shown to the people of Pakistan and the entire world that lawyers cannot move freely in their own country.”
Dozens of lawyers and political leaders were arrested in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) overnight.” Although the movement was supposed to reach Islamabad for a sit-in at the Parliament on Monday, the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan noted “that while protests will continue throughout Pakistani cities and activists may try to reach the capital in small groups, the crackdown has effectively ended the ‘long march.'” Protest organizers told the BBC that more than 1,000 opposition leaders and activists have already been jailed or put under house arrest, and police last night arrested dozens of lawyers, political leaders, legislators and activists in the districts of Peshawar, Mardan, Abbottabad and Mansehra last night. Dawn quoted Arshad Qureshi, PML-N spokesman of the NWFP, who said, “More than 100 party leaders and workers were arrested in the province and police are raiding houses of party leaders and activists.” And it’s not just activists and lawyers who are being targeted, apparently. Curiously [or not so curiously, depending who you talk to] the transmission of Geo News has been blocked in some parts of the twin cities of Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Quetta.
Meanwhile, though, it seems a political compromise may be underway. According to The News, “A new political deal, backed by Washington, London and the establishment, has quietly been conveyed to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to bring down the political temperature.” The news agency added, “As part of the deal, the prime minister has been asked to immediately convince beleaguered President Asif Ali Zardari to demonstrate the flexibility required to break the present deadlock before the long march could reach Islamabad.” Dawn noted in its coverage, “Zardari has refused to reinstate the judge but the presidential aide said under the proposed compromise a constitutional court and an appellate court would be set up and the deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry would head one.” A senior politician privy to the discussions told Dawn that the next 48 hours are crucial.
Other articles today reported that Nawaz Sharif and his party PML-N were open to dialogue and reconciliation. Nawaz confirmed to reporters that U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke had phoned him Thursday night, and told reporters today, “I have no personal enmity with Zardari. If he shuns vested interest and sincerely fulfils his promises to reinstate judges and restore an independent judiciary, I am ready to cooperate with him…There is no need for back channel diplomacy or private and secret dialogue. I have not slammed my doors on dialogue.” A PML-N leader, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters, “We still believe there is a way out, we still believe that the elected prime minister of Pakistan should play his role.”
What’s interesting is how several analysts and pundits now believe that PM Gilani could be the key to resolving this problem. In an editorial today, the Daily Times wrote,
The prime minister is being seen by some observers as staging some kind of internal revolt against his party chief, President Zardari, but this isn’t true. Mr. Gilani has trodden his moderate path quite discreetly in the past, and his channel of communication with the PML-N’s top leadership has not ruffled too many feathers within the PPP. In fact, it is his statesmanship that could now open the way to reconciliation between the PPP and the opposition at the last moment. His meeting with the army chief General Ashfaq Kayani may have actually paved the way for a last-minute initiative.
The Daily Times added, “Mr. Gilani’s strategy may succeed because of the uncertainty of other ‘options’ for the PPP in Punjab. The PML-Q, which is supposed to help form the new coalition in Lahore, is not only fragmented, it is speaking with many voices even among the top leaders.”
So there could be a solution yet to the political turmoil. However, while the reconciliation may quell the PML-N’s angry voices temporarily, will it also appease the lawyers’ movement? After all, that is the real voice of this Long March, and regardless of our leaders’ attempts to hijack it for their own political benefit, the overarching call for rule of law is still there. If the CJ is reinstated to some degree, will that be enough for those who are marching so tirelessly in the streets? Sometimes I wonder whether the light at the end of this tunnel is really a light, or merely a promise of more disappointment yet to come.
Also: If you’d like a constant update on all things Long March, check out the live chat initiated by Teeth Maestro. I am one of the lucky moderators/producers of the chat, and aside from helping moderate the commentary and discussion, I’m also twittering in updates [http://www.twitter.com/kalsoom82]. Amazing what technology can do nowadays right?
UPDATE 1620 [EST]: Sherry Rehman, a PPP member and the Information Minister has reportedly resigned from her post, in protest of the GEO News ban.