Friday, November 09, 2007

Catch & Release: Pakistani Political Theater

Left: Roadblocks and barbed wire fencing were set up around Ms Bhutto's Islamabad home.

Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has been released from house arrest in the capital, Islamabad, officials say. The order had blocked Ms Bhutto's bid to lead a rally against the emergency rule declared by President Musharraf.

"It has been withdrawn," interior secretary Kamal Shah told AFP, referring to the house arrest order. "The order was given in view of a specific security situation and now that situation has passed," Shah said.

The United States had criticized the house arrest, saying that she had to be "permitted freedom of movement." Ms Bhutto has vowed to wage a campaign aimed at forcing Gen Musharraf to stand down as head of the army. Last week, Ms Bhutto called for a "long march" starting on November 13, from Lahore to Islamabad, if her key demands were not met.

A three-day detention order was served on the former prime minister after she tried to cross the heavy police cordon set up outside her home on Friday.
Police had surrounded the house early in the morning with roadblocks and coils of barbed wire to prevent her from addressing a rally in the neighboring city of Rawalpindi.

Left: Pakistan People's Party (PPP) supporters were rounded up by police in Islamabad on Friday.

Under emergency rule announced last week, such public gatherings have been banned. Pakistani officials were later
quoted as saying the detention order had been withdrawn. A spokeswoman for Ms Bhutto's party said she had no information about the move.

Officials said that it was a temporary measure because of a fear of suicide bombers attacking the planned rally, and that it would be lifted by Saturday. Last month a suicide bomber killed nearly 140 people at a mass gathering as Ms Bhutto returned home from exile.

On Friday Ms Bhutto made several attempts to leave her home but was turned back. She finally emerged to address the media through a megaphone from behind the barricades. She repeated opposition demands that General Musharraf should lift the state of emergency, resign as army chief and hold elections by mid-January.

"We are calling for the revival of our constitution and respect for our judiciary. We are calling for General Musharraf to keep his commitment and retire as chief of army staff on 15 November."

The quick withdrawal of the arrest order will continue to fuel the burning flames of ire set against Ms. Bhutto. Many are judging her actions as mere pretenses and staged photo opportunities to garner legitimacy. In that respect, it has been a good day for Ms Bhutto -- bolstering her "democratic" credentials at a time when other opposition parties still believe she plans to do a deal with General Musharraf. Moreover, the US is backing such a plan and all the pronouncements emanating from Washington have indicated the Bhutto-Musharraf ticket in lieu of opposing sectors with nationalist sentiments in Pakistan.

She is apparently, putting Musharraf under pressure at home while his western allies are voicing public opposition that seem to put the general under pressure abroad. However, it is clear Musharraf's allies are not ready to ask for him to step down and continue to back him in the background while making these stately statements that show discontent.

The United States, which has been the principal backer of General Musharraf in his so-called fight against pro-Taliban militants, was quick to criticize the restrictions on Ms Bhutto.

Left: PPP says 5,000 of its activists have been arrested in recent days.

"Former Prime Minister Bhutto and other political party members must be permitted freedom of movement and all protesters released. We remain concerned about the continued state of emergency and curtailment of basic freedoms, and urge Pakistan's authorities to quickly return to constitutional order and democratic norms." US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

On Thursday General Musharraf pledged to hold parliamentary elections by February 15, 2008 - a month later than they were due. He also renewed a promise to quit as head of the army, if and when the Supreme Court validated his recent re-election as president.

However, Ms Bhutto dismissed his words as "vague" and "generalized." General Musharraf announced his decision to hold elections after coming under pressure from US President George W. Bush. The general imposed a state of emergency on Saturday, blaming militant violence and an unruly judiciary, while making references to economic stability.

A media blackout is still in force. International channels like the BBC and CNN were allowed back on air on Thursday but have since been blocked. All the better to pull the wool over the eyes over a Paskitani public well aware of the decades-old political theater, which has stained political life in the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, many in the country and elsewhere are able to peer through the curtain of distortion and read the script from backstage.

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