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Street violence tests Pakistan's president

Some 38 people were killed this weekend in street violence in Pakistan's major cities.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2007



ISLAMABAD, Pakistan

Saturday and Sunday's violent street protests are testing Pakistan's military-led government.

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In the port city of Karachi, critics say some 15,000 police stood by as government supporters sprayed Kalashnikov rounds at demonstrators and members of the opposition returned fire. Some 38 people died, most of whom were members of the opposition, and more than 150 were wounded. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the people who died.]

The protesters had gathered Saturday afternoon to hear a speech by Pakistan's former, independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whom Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf sacked in March. The dismissal, and the two months of roiling street protests that it incited, have amounted to the most formidable challenge Mr. Musharraf's military regime has faced since he seized power in a 1999 coup.

The handling of the unrest underscores Musharraff's weakening grip on a restive public, analysts say, and the ones most likely shaking their heads are the Army generals who Musharraf relies on for power.

Although Musharraf's inner circle is unlikely to force the general out anytime soon, analysts say, the escalating crisis pits swelling support for Mr. Chaudhry against a publicly vilified military.

"My sense is they're already very worried about what is happening," says Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant-general and one-time adviser to Musharraf.

Growing protests have engulfed every major city in Pakistan. Eight judges of the high court have resigned, and lawyers belonging of Musharraf's own ruling party have quit. Musharraf has resorted to ever-harsher tactics, each one further cheapening the Army's image, which has already taken a historically unprecedented beating.

Later on Saturday in Pakistan's capital of Islamabad, Musharraf stood behind a wall of bulletproof glass, expounding before a thin gathering of supporters that, despite the crisis, "the people are with me." Musharraf quickly dismissed speculation that he would declare a state of emergengy, insisting the presidential vote by lawmakers and parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall, will continue as planned.

Opposition parties on Sunday were accusing the pro-government Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party of initiating much of the violence.

Whether frustration will boil over within the Army's ranks, to the point that Musharraf is edged out, is difficult to gauge. Analysts speculate that, even if some officers may want to move against him, Musharraf's hold over a rigid chain-of-command culture, makes a coup unlikely. But with elections scheduled in just a few months, the Army could decide that the price for keeping Musharraf at the public helm of affairs is too high.

"Whatever they think, it appears to be extremely difficult to step in and tell General Musharraf that it is time for you to go," says Rasul Bahksh Rais, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "The question they have to ask themselves is: Is the integrity of the federation and the economy threatened?"

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