A nation on a tightrope

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 5 1988

A nation on a tightrope

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 5 1988

A nation on a tightrope


There was blood in the streets of Pakistan’s cities last Wednesday, but, for a change, it was not caused by political, ethnic or religious strife. Hundreds of thousands of Shiite Moslems poured into the streets to celebrate their holiest day, Ashura. As they do every year, young men, seized with religious fervor, stripped off their shirts and whipped themselves with metal-tipped flails until their backs were lacerated and running with blood. Some collapsed, and onlookers, spattered with their blood, chanted and pounded their chests. For years, the day has been marked by violent clashes between Shiite and Sunni Moslems, and barely a week after the death in a plane crash of Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the army was out in force and braced for trouble. It did not happen. Instead, all factions strove successfully to maintain order. “No one wants to give the army an excuse to step in,” explained Aslam Peraiz, a volunteer from a Christian group,

which was helping to keep the peace. “There may be hope for our country yet.”

Across Pakistan last week, most political and ethnic leaders showed rare restraint by keeping their followers under tight control. About a dozen people died in fighting between Shiites and Sunnis near the northern city of Peshawar at the beginning of the week, but by the violent standards of the country’s sectarian warfare, Pakistanis regarded it as a minor incident. Political leaders said that the military, which has ruled Pakistan for most of its 41-year history as an independent nation, might well reassert its authority and declare martial law at the first breakdown in public order.

But currently—although the cause

of the crash that killed Zia and 29 others on the plane remains uncertain— there seems to be a good chance that the country will return to democratic rule after the elections scheduled for Nov. 16. Said Maleeha Lodhi, editor of the Islamabad daily The Muslim'. “We are walking a tightrope. We may get successfully through to elections— but we could fall off at any time.”

The nation’s tense balancing act was I most evident last o week in the streets of o Karachi, the seething, § Arabian Sea city of "" more than seven million people that has witnessed the worst of Pakistan’s recent ethnic violence. As recently as May, 32 people died in fighting between bitterly hostile Pathans from the northwest region, and Muhajirs, who originally

came from what is now neighboring India. And just 12 days before Zia’s death, Pakistan’s minority Shiite community was inflamed by the assassination of its spiritual leader, Allama Arif al-Husseini.

Many Shiites blamed Zia, a Sunni, for the death, and the authorities had predicted severe clashes between the two groups last week. As a result, Karachi’s streets were heavily guarded as Shiites staged their emotional Ashura procession, which mourns the death of the Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed, over 1,300 years ago. Blue-shirted policemen wielding steel-tipped bamboo rods stood guard at street intersections, while hundreds of army trucks loaded with soldiers bearing automatic rifles stood by. In the end, they did not have to fire a shot.

Leading the chorus of conciliation was Benazir Bhutto, the 35-year-old leader of the main opposition group, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Bhutto had nursed a bitter personal grudge against Zia, who overthrew her father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and allowed him to go to the gallows two years later on a charge of conspiracy to murder.

With Zia’s death, Benazir Bhutto quickly moved to mend fences with the military, long her chief opponent. Indeed, in an interview last week at party headquarters—once her parents’ home—in Karachi’s fashionable Clifton district, Bhutto lavished praise on the military.

“There never was a tussle between the army and the People’s Party,” she maintained.

“We always considered the army to be the defenders of the nation.”

Most observers predict that Bhutto’s party would win the largest number of seats in Pakistan’s national assembly if the election was free and fair. Her chances were apparently increased last Friday when acting president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, 73, hinted strongly that he would reverse one of Zia’s decrees and allow parties, rather than just individual candidates, to contest the elections. Zia had always maintained that political parties were contrary to Islamic teachings, and Ishaq Khan’s new approach is expected to help Bhutto because her group is by far the best-organized opposition force. In a television address to mark the end of a 10-day mourning period for Zia, Ishaq Khan declared: “We have a constitution and we have complete faith in democracy. No de-

parture from the constitutional path is thus permissible.”

But the election poses a major problem for Bhutto. Married last December, she announced in late May that she was expecting a child. The timing of the birth is both critical to her electoral hopes and a heavily guarded secret in the Bhutto camp. If she does not give birth until November or December, her ability to campaign may be severely affected. But if, as some observers say, the birth is due in mid-October, she would be able to campaign in the final days before the vote. In what she and many others saw as an obvious move

to neutralize her, Zia announced the election date within days of her revealing her pregnancy. But last week, a political insider in Islamabad with close ties to the PPP said that Bhutto might have outfoxed her old foe. “She had her people put out the word that she was due in late November, so Zia went ahead and set the vote for Nov. 16,” he said. “But what he didn’t know is that she is due in mid-October and will be up and campaigning just in time.”

When she met reporters last week, Bhutto was visibly pregnant. But she remained seated and wore a loosefitting dress, making it difficult to estimate how far her pregnancy might be advanced. And she flatly refused to discuss the matter, saying, “I won’t comment on my personal life because, in our culture, it’s

just not the done thing.”

Meanwhile, Bhutto’s chief political rivals, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), are in disarray. Last Friday, the PML split into two distinct factions when a group that included six current central government ministers and the chief ministers of all four provinces broke away from the leadership of former prime minister Mohammed Khan Junejo, whom Zia dismissed last May. Observers said that if the two PML factions opposed each other at the polls, it would provide a boost to the chances of Bhutto’s PPP.

The intentions of the army—which has ruled for most of Pakistan’s 41 years of independence—are difficult to determine. Still, the new chief of staff, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, was reported to have told senior officers last Thursday that the army must stay out of politics. And most observers agree that Beg—who took over after Zia’s fatal plane crash—has no political ambitions. But, observed Kausar Niazi, a former minister under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s, “that is exactly what they said about Zia before he took over.” Added Niazi: “The army is the main political party in Pakistan and they are very skilled at manipulating the system. They are masters of camouflage; it is their profession.”

Whoever rules Pakistan after November faces a dauntingly difficult task. Since Zia took power, the country’s ethnic and religious divisions have become more serious, political institutions have been weakened, and the long war in Afghanistan has flooded Pakistan with an estimated three million illegal weapons. Groups that once settled scores with sticks and knives are now armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles and rocket launchers. In a comfortable uppermiddle-class house in Islamabad last week, a retired businessman said: “You can get whatever you want—rifles, explosives, even a SAM missile. Just put out the word, and it will be delivered to your home.”

As a result, the businessman warned, any unrest in a sensitive area such as Karachi could quickly get out of control and give military leaders reason to reimpose martial law. That is what Pakistan’s political leaders want to avoid at all costs, but many observers question whether they are up to the task. “Our politicians have to show a great deal of skill and a great deal of maturity over the next few months,” said Maleeha Lodhi of The Muslim. “Unfortunately, our history does not encourage a great deal of optimism.”