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Student protests build in Pakistan

Campus protests gather steam throughout the country, worrying the fragile regime.

By Shahan MuftiCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 15, 2007

Lahore, Pakistan

The steady rumbling of dissent on university campuses across Pakistan is an ominous development for the country's military regime. Student activists in Pakistan have a history of effecting dramatic political change.

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What began last week as a protest against the arrests of academics at a university in Lahore has quickly spread across larger campuses, energizing new movements and inciting old student political groups from a near two-decade slumber. But when opposition leader Imran Khan, a perceived hero of the student movement, arrived Wednesday to address students in Lahore, members of a powerful and established Islamist student group quickly handed him over to police.

For Mr. Khan and others, targeting university campuses is a shrewd move. But his arrest reveals the scattered nature of the students' potent political power. Unless the opposition can arrive at a consensus, observers say, the movement will remain incoherent. At the core of this confused effort lies the clashing visions of the old student political groups with a new wave of activists who hope to effect a more profound shift in Pakistani politics.

"This 'new student movement' is very significant," says Rasul Baksh Rais, a professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) who is a liaison between the administration and student leaders on his campus. Mr. Rais added that students even snubbed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto when she invited them for a meeting. The students' lack of interest in Pakistan's premier opposition figure, Rais says, indicates that "until all parties are able to come on one platform it is unlikely these students will want to support one party over another."

Whether Ms. Bhutto will eventually be able to seize the reins of such a unified movement remains a question, observers say. Security officials said she will likely remain under house arrest until Thursday at the earliest. On Tuesday, Bhutto called on the president to resign. Her spokeswoman told reporters Wednesday that she is attempting to rally the political opposition, including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to present a more unified opposition to President Pervez Musharraf's authority.

Musharraf said Wednesday that he expects to step down as Army chief by the end of November and begin a new presidential term as a civilian, warning that Pakistan risked chaos if he gave into opposition demands to resign. In an interview with the Associated Press, he accused Bhutto, currently under house arrest, of fueling political turmoil and rejected Western pressure to quickly lift emergency rule, which he indicated was likely to continue through the January elections. "I take decisions in Pakistan's interest and I don't take ultimatums from anyone," he said at his Army office.

Khan was one of the only prominent political leaders to have avoided arrest by going into hiding, and had sparked student activism by speaking at a university campus on the eve of the emergency. Through underground messages from hiding, Khan had called for a "youth army" to take to the streets. "My goal was to set in motion a student movement," he said after his arrest.

'No greater ideology at work'