In Pakistan, protesters stream into the capital in support of ousted judges

Tens of thousands are pressuring the government to reinstate the judges, who were dismissed under President Musharraf.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's problems have reappeared right where they first began more than a year ago: in the streets.

Follow a precarious period that saw martial law, Mr. Musharraf's resignation as Army chief, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a general election, and months of political maneuvering, tens of thousands of protesters from across Pakistan, led by prominent lawyers and political leaders, arrived in Islamabad Friday to again demand that the judges of the Supreme Court, whom Musharraf dismissed last year, be restored.

A return of the sacked judges threatens to bring down Musharraf, who has been unsuccessful at consolidating his rule as a civilian president after quitting his Army post last November. At the time of their dismissal, the judges were poised to declare Musharraf's rule unconstitutional. But the president isn't the only one feeling the heat from the street demonstrations. The new government, which won the recent election in part on promises of reinstating the judges, is also under pressure to deliver.

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"In the preelection scenario, getting rid of Musharraf was the focus of the movement, and the restoration [of judges] was being demanded of him as well," explains Khalid Rahman, director general of the Institute for Policy Studies, a policy think tank in Islamabad. "In the post-election scenario, the target remains President Musharraf – people still want him out – but the movement is now pressuring the new parliament to fix the problem."

The lawyers' rally comes four months after a general election in which Musharraf's loyalists were swept out of the legislature and the late Mrs. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party formed a shaky coalition government under a hostile Musharraf. The demonstration, which the local media has dubbed an epic sounding "long march," started in the port city of Karachi on the Arabian Sea and reached the capital, almost 1,000 miles to the north in the foothills of the Himalayas, after five days. The motor caravan pulled in several thousand people en route despite summer temperatures that reached 120 degrees F. at some points. Local media estimated at least 50,000 demonstrators were entering Islamabad on Friday afternoon.

"Not many in the movement like to talk about this, but there is some fatigue setting in with the lawyers now," says Babar Sattar, a practicing lawyer who has been involved with the movement. "But the at the same time, there is a much stronger presence of civil society and political parties."

The lawyers, who are now in the 15th month of street protests, says Mr. Sattar, are coming to realize that street agitation alone will not be enough to bring about long-term change. "The backing of political parties is important, because this movement needs to have a political strategy and support."

The march, a red carpet of sorts for the "who's who" in the anti-Musharraf camp in Pakistan, is being led by lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, once a close aide to Bhutto. It also includes ex-military personnel, activists, and working professionals from secular civil society groups, political opposition leaders – including Islamists – and even Mr. Sharif. Sharif, the man Musharraf overthrew to first come to power almost eight years ago, returned to sweep large section of the country in the election earlier this year and has been pressuring his coalition partner, Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, to take concrete steps to reinstate the judges. "President Musharraf is too weak to play any role – he is already on his way out," Mr. Ahsan said in an address during the long march. "It is parliament which will have to play its role now."

Musharraf's collision course with the judiciary was set in March last year, when he fired the chief justice, who had developed a reputation as a populist and activist. He had challenged Musharraf's policies on secret detentions in the course of fighting the war against terrorism, exposed cases of government corruption, and taken on more pro bono cases than any judge before him. When a street movement managed to have the top judge reinstated and also threatened to overthrow Musharraf, the general struck preemptively and declared a state of emergency. He replaced a majority of the judges in the Supreme Court with loyalists.

Some in Pakistan hoped the new government would be able to remove Musharraf from power or at least reinstall the judiciary, who could do the job. But a fractured and internally unstable new government was unable to deliver on these expectations as the People's Party began warming toward the president. Now, thousands of people led by lawyers loyal to the sacked chief justice are back on the streets.

The marchers were reaching Islamabad Friday afternoon and the government had cleared the route for the march after initially setting up imposing roadblocks in the capital. "The government," says analyst Khalid Rahman, "must offer at least the appearance of supporting the change," which the protesters are demanding, "if they are to retain some legitimacy."

"I don't think it's an objective of the movement to overthrow the new government," says Sattar, the lawyer. The movement now has allies in the legislature who are applying their own pressure to have the judiciary restored and Musharraf removed, he says, but there must be a resolution soon. "It might have to be a compromise, but if no middle ground is found either, the temperature will keep rising."

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