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Amid a Turbulent Year, a Rare Sign of Hope in Pakistan

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The summer of 2008 brought the usual blistering heat to Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf, an army general who had become president through a coup d'etat eight years earlier, led by edict in a country little used to democracy and often subject to the heavy yet firm hand of military rule. Despite the predictable heat, the streets of Karachi thronged with thousands of lawyers clad in the traditional black coats of Pakistan's legal establishment. Some chanted slogans for the release of Supreme Court Chief Justice, Ifthikar Mohammad Chaudhry, a reformer of Pakistan's judicial system who had been under house arrest since 2007. Others maligned Musharraf, their white banners of protest distorted by the shimmering heat. In a world where Pakistan had been typecast as little more than a terrorist haven or epicenter of natural catastrophes, these lawyers represented a small but growing part of Pakistani society little understood by the Western world. Forming the vanguard of the country's "lawyers' movement", these agitated advocates heralded the dawn of an unprecedented grassroots effort for good governance and rule of law in Pakistan.

In March 2007, Chaudhry, who had been furthering the judiciary's independence and severing its traditionally close ties with the President, had been removed from office by Musharraf, after resisting army pressure to resign. The event led to nationwide protests, inspiring a 24-month movement led by the lawyers of Pakistan that successfully returned Chaudhry to his position as Chief Justice and restored over fifty other judges who had sided with Chaudhry to their previous offices. For many Pakistanis, this lawyers' movement and its success represented an important sign of increasing judicial empowerment in a nation where courts had long followed the dictates of either the ruling elite or the military.

With their goals largely achieved, the lawyers' movement has dissipated, leaving many to wonder about the causes and effects of this seminal moment in the country's history. Despite the movement's success, today many of Chaudhry's reforms remain unimplemented and the expansion of judicial power and independence, though substantial, still falls far short of that found in most democracies.

Looking back as the four-year anniversary of the movement approaches, many Pakistanis are asking whether the movement was merely an episodic response to Musharraf's tightening grip on civil society or whether it had lasting consequences for Pakistan and the rule of law in developing countries. With its long-lasting impact unclear, critics of the movement have raised a number of concerns and questions about its overall significance for the country.

Some have complained that Pakistan's wealthy elite commandeered the movement to support its own aims, citing to the movement's role in defending Nawaz Sharif, the elite's favored political candidate, as proof of these claims. Indeed in many respects the latter half of the lawyers' movement came to represent a political backlash by a new set of elites against established feudal and industrial groups as well as Musharraf and current President Asif Ali Zardari, rather than a popular movement for the rule of law in Pakistan. Others have suggested that the lawyers' movement has had a small, even negligible effect on the advancement of Pakistani civil society. For these critics, civil society develops not as a result of short-lived movements or uprisings, but rather by increasing education levels, labor mobility and rural to urban migration.

Despite these and other criticisms, the lawyers' movement has generally had a deep and discernible impact on Pakistan. Aside from increasing judicial independence and educating ordinary Pakistanis about their constitutional rights, the movement has brought young lawyers to the forefront, encouraged the establishment of a network of civil society groups and may have ushered in an era of issue-based political dialogue for the first time in Pakistani history.

Educating Everyday Pakistanis

Foremost amongst the movement's achievements has been its role in educating the general public about the power of the judicial system and its potential influence over the office of the president. As a result of the movement's messaging, Pakistanis likely have a new perspective on their judicial system, including an expectation that judges will now hold the country's political leaders accountable for their actions. Because of the publicity the movement received, and because of the sympathy many Pakistanis felt towards the ordinary lawyer, today Pakistanis know considerably more about their Constitution and judiciary than ever before.

For instance, during the protests, newly privatized Pakistani television channels ran specials on the Constitution and the rights and obligations it affords the people. In addition, various news channels, such as Geo TV, broadcast numerous discussions about the role and powers of both the Supreme Court's Chief Justice and the judicial system more generally. So extensive was this coverage that, during the protests, Musharraf targeted GeoTV for its role in educating the people about the movement, prohibiting the channel from broadcasting related programming for several weeks.

Moreover, it was easy for an average Pakistani to sympathize with the many ordinary lawyers who formed the majority of the movement. As Professor Moeen Cheema notes, these young, part-time and often poor lawyer-foot soldiers that made up the bulk of Pakistan's legal establishment, "barely eke out a decent living from legal practice ... and enrollment in the bar is a part-time venture for them that provides a status of respectability rather than living wages." The people's sympathies with the movement's foundational poor, young lawyers thus bridged the class-gap between everyman concerns and the usually upper-class anxiety with the rule of law.

Advancing Civil Society

Many of these young lawyers, as well as the students and civil rights activists who joined them, experienced a sense of collective identity formation during the protests, which continues to endure today. The lawyers' movement provided a venue for disparate parts of Pakistani civil society to work together to achieve nationwide judicial and political reform. This network of NGOs, professionals and civil society groups has continued to function in the years since the movement's end.

For instance, many groups established during the movement transformed themselves into aid organizations to provide relief during the recent natural disasters that have devastated much of Pakistan. I personally witnessed the enduring relationships created between these disparate elements of Pakistani civil society at a recent American Bar Association conference on Pakistan flood relief held in Washington D.C. There, I met leaders from Pakistani NGOs and professional associations who have played an instrumental role in creating systems to deliver aid to areas devastated by the floods. While many of these individuals and organizations first worked together during the lawyers' movement, their past success has now been translated into effective disaster relief programs to meet Pakistan's current needs. As USAID's disaster relief chief, Mark Ward noted, these new Pakistani leaders, formed in the crucible of the lawyers' movement, constitute the backbone of Pakistan's new civil society, which is dominated by the middle class, rather than the urban elite, and fueled by a desire for social change.

Issue-Based Politics

The movement also seems to have inspired a burgeoning, democratic, political consciousness in a country long known to elect leaders on the basis of feudal ties and family loyalties. Though the country has had local and national elections since its independence in 1947, Pakistan's political parties have long been dominated by corrupt politicians, police and government bureaucrats. In most cases, political leadership has been a matter of family or personal connections. The Bhutto family, for instance, has dominated Pakistani politics for over half of the country's history. The current head of state, Asif Ali Zardari, is the husband of the former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, who was herself the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Unlike other moments in Pakistan's political history, the lawyers' movement did not subscribe to political favoritism and in many ways, rejected the country's patronage system. When the movement did turn political, its message was focused on issues rather than political personalities, a first for the country. Though still too soon to tell, the lawyers' movement may herald the beginning of issue-based politics in the country. At this stage, however, what is clear is that an independently organized and highly mobilized rule of law movement gave voice to a broad-based social campaign that successfully defended its mission and inspired ordinary Pakistanis to oust a military dictator and demand that their country's future leaders respect the judiciary's independence. All this without the support of any traditional Pakistani leaders or political parties.

Thus, if the lawyers' movement can inspire a merchant in Sindh to empathize with the trials and tribulations of a Supreme Court justice, teach media outlets repressed for half a century to resist the will of a military-led government and make a bookstore in Lahore quickly sell out of copies of the Pakistani Constitution, then its impact on the country cannot merely be a short-term blip on the radar. In the end, the movement's enduring legacy may not be in the changes it engenders in the judiciary or in the nature of electoral politics in Pakistan, but rather in its creation of a democratic consciousness amongst all Pakistanis, whether they be lawyers or laborers, scholars or students.

The full text of this article, including an in-depth historical accounting of the movement, was first published on Muftah.org