Pakistani authorities arrested hundreds of opposition activists and lawyers Wednesday in an apparent effort to stifle antigovernment momentum ahead of a lawyers' march on the capital.
The crackdown follows a ban on public gatherings in two provinces and a warning that opposition leaders could face sedition charges if serious violence erupts during the planned five-day march. Some opposition parties have piggybacked their political goals onto the lawyers' movement, which began in 2007 as a popular grass-roots drive for an independent judiciary.
The tough response reflects concern at the groundswell of discontent. Prolonged protest could further threaten the unpopular US-backed government, which is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency as well as revive a faltering economy.
Last month the political party led by popular opposition figure Nawaz Sharif, PML-N, threw its weight behind the lawyers' movement after a controversial Supreme Court ruling declared Mr. Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, ineligible from holding office. The brothers claim the verdict was directed by President Asif Ali Zardari, who heads the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Despite the crackdown, a leader of the lawyers' movement, Ali Ahmad Kurd, said the marchers remained uncowed, telling television network Geo that the "long march" would proceed as planned from the southern cities of Karachi and Quetta on Thursday.
From there, the protesters are set to reach the capital, Islamabad, Monday, where they have pledged to stage a sit-in outside the National Assembly until their demands are met.
Fight to restore judges
The lawyers' chief goal is to restore the remaining handful of 60 judges deposed by former President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf but not yet reinstated. In the lawyers' view these judges are independent-minded and therefore crucial to rule of law.
Key among these judges is Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the popular former chief justice who rose to national acclaim in March 2007 for presiding over cases that irked the government. These include an investigation into "missing people" who had allegedly been kidnapped by Pakistan's intelligence agencies in connection with the US-led "war on terror."
Mr. Chaudhry's suspension sparked protests across the country, principally among the middle class, lawyers, and students. Though he was reinstated in July 2007, upon the orders of the Supreme Court, he and the other judges were deposed once again when Mr. Musharraf declared a state of emergency in November of that year.
Since the election of a democratic government in February 2008, the ruling PPP has signed three separate accords with other parties to restore the judiciary to its status before Musharraf's six-week state of emergency, but has yet to do so.
Though the majority of the 60 judges have taken fresh oaths, Zardari is thought to be unwilling to restore Chaudhry for fear that the former chief justice will reopen corruption cases that have surrounded Zardari since the 1990s.
Says Munir Malik, the lawyer who represented Chaudhry at the time he was first removed, these early successes were instrumental in mobilizing Pakistani public opinion behind an apolitical movement for the first time in Pakistani history.
It was Chaudhry's first reinstatement, he says, that provided hope to the populace. "People became frustrated and there was no real outlet to vent that. Then along came the chance to say 'No, we won't accept this.' We were successful in that people realized that if they wanted justice they need an independent judiciary."
Principle versus politics
Some analysts now argue that the lawyers' principled stand has become tainted, as the movement has been co-opted by political parties and their interests.
The lawyers' movement can now be viewed as "a proxy for the struggle of opposition groups," says Aasim Sajjad, a history professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and a democracy activist.
"The original movement took root under very different conditions. Musharraf was a military dictator. All the opposition parties came together for the cause – it was unadulterated," he says.
"The vast majority of judges have now taken fresh oaths. What are you going to do about a judiciary not interested in its own independence?" Professor Sajjad continues, referring to a view among protesting lawyers that the judges who returned to office have compromised the movement's "all or nothing" effort to have Chaudhry reinstated. "The movement's ideology has been shaken," he says.
Still, the movement may continue to draw grass-roots support as an opposition movement to the increasingly unpopular government.
At a rally Wednesday in Abbottabad, in Pakistan's northwest, Nawaz Sharif stressed the significance of the march: "Today is a defining moment in Pakistan's history. We can change the destiny of this country. Pakistan stands at a crossroads today, and it is your duty to save it," he told a crowd of thousands of people.
I.A. Rehman, a board member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a senior journalist, says the government has two options: "Defuse the situation gracefully by reinstating the judges, or deal with the issue now as a law-and-order situation." The government appears to be prepared to do the latter, he says.
A meeting Wednesday between Army Chief Parvez Ashfaq Kayani and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani to discuss the political situation triggered concern among Pakistani media that the military might intervene if the situation escalates. It was the first time the possibility of an Army coup – however remote – had been so widely mentioned since the civilian government took office a year ago.
"If things get completely out of control, [Kayani's] role will get more obvious and more pronounced," says defense analyst Talat Masood, a retired general.
Sajjad and Mr. Rehman say the government will have itself to blame if the protests escalate.
"You lose the high ground when you take actions that are patently undemocratic," says Sajjad, adding that Wednesday's crackdown has probably further incensed the opposition.