Pakistan's martial law administration is moving sharply and swiftly to contain a new round of political ferment that threatens, however distantly, to bring down the government of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq.
More than 250 opposition political leaders and followers have been arrested within the past week for defying martial law regulations banning political activity, and othes have been forbidden to travel beyond their home towns or provinces.
Virtually all colleges in two volatile provinces, the Punjab and the Nort-West Frontier, have been closed following violent clashes between police and students demanding an end to more than 3 1/2 years of military rule.
Diplomatic observers say this is the largest number of arrests since the government put down demonstrations protesting Zia's hanging of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto nearly two years ago.
"Once things start to unravel, they could unravel very quickly," says a Western diplomat. Adds another envoy, "There obviously is fear that things are on the move."
Zia, who came to power in a coup against Bhutto in 1977, is unpopular for several reasons. He has twice reneged on promises to hold elections, and has cut off outlets for orderly change and expression of grievances by banning political activity. Press censorship and his moves to "Islamicize" Pakistan's laws, economy, social customs, and even dress have drawn the scorn of the middle and upper classes.
His execution of the former prime minister has alienated workers and peasants , to whom Bhutto was a folk hero.
But Zia has ridden out previous political storms through a combination of shows of force and a backing-down from the most potentially dangerous confrontations -- those that could erupt into battles between his armed forces and angry crowds.
In November 1979 his army sat on its hands rather than tangle with a mob burning down the United States Embassy, and last summer he quickly watered down a new religious tax when protesters from a minority Muslims sect surrounded the government secretariat in the capital.
The question now is whether the current ferment will boil over into a mass political protest -- which is has not done at date -- or whether Zia can once again contain it by arresting his political opponents and closing the schools to disperse antigovernment students.
A new elements is the recent uniting of nine opposition parties -- all theoretically banned --Zia's resignation, the lifting of martial law, and free elections to national and provincial assemblies by May.
The formation in early February of the united front called "Movement for the Restoration of Democracy" caused a stir in itself, since quarrels between the parties had kept them apart. Lawyers staged a nationwide boycott of the courts March 2 in protest against martial law, but other than this, there has been little evidence of popular support for the new movement.
At first, authorities arrested or restricted the travels of only a few political figures. But the crackdown came in earnest late last week, when leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy gathered in Lahore to plan protests, strikes and civil disobedience moves against the Zia government.
Among those arrested there was Bhutto's widow, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, who had disguised herself in the ankle-length chador worn by conservative Muslim women to slip into the Punjab provincial capital in defiance of orders banning her from the province.
Mrs. Bhutto, who has succeeded her husband as head of the Pakistan People's Party, was freed and returned to her Karachi home after a day's detention. The government has since extended its Punjab travel ban to her fiery young daughter, Benazair, who is even more outspoken against the regime that hanged her father.
Zia, who left the country Feb. 26 on a scheduled trip to the Middle East, said the arrests were "preventive" steps taken because "Pakistanis remain unable to rise above agitational politics." He ascribed the student unrest to "nefarious designs" by unnamed local and foreig n elements.