Student protests build in Pakistan

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

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.

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'

Students became the latest ingredient in the urban street caldron – along with political party workers, lawyers, and civil society groups – after President Musharraf extended his sweeping security crackdown to academics. The arrests of two professors from LUMS, after the declaration of emergency last week, sparked immediate protests and the arrival of riot police at the campus gates.

The agitation spread like wildfire to other smaller, private universities. Within a week, Khan visited Punjab University, the historic core of student activism, to try to harness the unwieldy power of the students. Shortly after his arrest, Khan told reporters that student "collaborators" had betrayed him to security officials. His surprising detention indicates that the youth movement is united only by its opposition to the current regime – and little else.

"There is no greater ideology at work here that I can describe," says Hashim bin Rashid, a LUMS student leader, dressed in all black and topped off by a black headband. The students at his campus, he says, are more inspired by larger concepts of social justice.

"It's easy to turn a blind eye to everything going around you when you have a silver spoon stuck in your mouth," he says. "But we are here because we have a stake in saving this country."

Pakistan's history of student struggle

This sentiment, admits Mr. Rashid, might not be what is driving students in older, more established student groups, which have been the breeding grounds for many of Pakistan's old guard politicians. But in a country that places student activism at the center of its historical narrative of independence, student politics in any form has often been essential to carving the country's political power dynamic.

In the 1960s, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto toppled military ruler Gen. Ayub Khan on the back of a seething student street movement. The early 1980s saw student groups target Gen. Zia ul-Haq's regime, prompting him to ban student unions as part of an effort to depoliticize the schools.

But some of the newer institutions have no experience with political activism. Their opposition to the military regime is defined by "a liberal ethos, a modernist structure of values," that focuses on "constitutionalism, rule of law, and the independence of judiciary, rather than identifying with any prevailing political party," says Rais.

This new movement has awaked student activism after two-decades of depoliticalization. While it remains germinal and incoherent, the students have the potential to help decide Musharraf's fate – as other movements have done in the past. As the new, nonaligned movement spreads to the traditional centers of student power, it's likely to become more complicated – both for the students and the government they oppose.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a journalist who was active in student politics during the military rule of General Zia and was arrested several times for "anti-state" activities sees this as a very different movement than that of the 1980s, when large state owned universities, not elite colleges, were the center of activity.

"If this spreads further to local colleges and universities, this will become a totally different ball game," says Mr. Paracha. "The government will have to really start worrying in that case."

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