The political and popular strife in Pakistan continues to escalate as police and government security officials attempt to stymie the rising tide of anger against President Zardari. The anger is fueled by Zardari's refusal to reinstate supreme court justices ousted by former president Pervez Musharraf last year. Moreover, this popular resentment is compounded with the court's February 25th ousting of former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Punjab province chief Shahbaz Sharif. The court's decision is widely believed to have been at Zardari's behest, making the week's protests a "perfect storm" of sorts for the beleaguered president.
The situation bodes ill for both Zaradi's future and, on a larger scale, the future of regional stability. According to the AP:
Pakistan's opposition leader predicted President Asif Ali Zardari won't serve his full five-year term as police Friday turned away another convoy of protesters trying to reach the capital for a major anti-government demonstration.
Authorities have detained hundreds of political activists and lawyers in recent days, seeking to thwart a protest movement that is challenging the government's shaky year-old rule. The turmoil could dampen Western hopes that Pakistan will stay focused on the fight against al-Qaida and Taliban extremists along its border with Afghanistan.
Given Zardari's heavy-handed response to demonstrators, Sharif is now calling on Pakistan's prime minister, Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, to step in and defuse the increasingly precarious situation. According to HiPakistan.com:
Talking at "Aaj Kamran Khan Kay Saath" programme of Geo TV on Thursday, Mian Nawaz Sharif said that if the prime minister wished he could restore pre-November 3 judiciary. "The nation and the opposition would support the prime minister whatever steps he takes for restoration of the judges," he said, adding that now its time for the prime minister to play his role. He said the premier should make a clear-cut decision before the long march in the best interests of the nation.
Nawaz said the prime minister was a sincere man and there was no doubt on his intention. "Although the prime minister does not have all the powers, he has the power to restore the deposed judges and sack the PCO judges."
And, as Pakistan's Daily Times reports today, Gilani has indeed issued an order that Sharif be furnished with a "foolproof security" detail.
In an interview with the Guardian Thursday, Sharif accused Zardari of engaging in an "electoral dictatorship" that, in addition to repressing the opposition, is even plotting his assassination. According to the Guardian:
"I have recently received certain information from own sources, credible sources, about certain forces who are active against me," Sharif said yesterday as he was being driven in an armour-plated Mercedes to a political rally.
"Threats to my life come from high-ranking government officials, certain topmost people in the government, my sources say." He declined to give further details. It is understood his party has yet to decide how to respond.
Last month, in response to a question about the initial protests following the court's ousting of Sharif, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said, "well, obviously, we're concerned about any violence that takes place anywhere around the world. But you know, that seems to me something that the Pakistani Government will need to handle, but I don't have any further comment on it.
However, given Pakistan's rapid political deterioration, the Obama administration has now been forced to get involved by involving Ambassador Anne Patterson and special envoy to Af-Pak Richard Holbrooke, the New York Times reports. According to the Times:
In an effort to defuse the Pakistani political crisis, the American ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, traveled to see the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif to urge him to reconcile with Pakistan's president, Mr. Sharif said.
Later on Thursday, the Obama administration's special envoy to Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, spoke by video conference call to Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, Mr. Zardari's office announced. Mr. Holbrooke also spoke to Mr. Sharif by telephone, Mr. Holbrooke's office said.
The involvement of two senior American officials prompted speculation here that the United States was trying to broker a deal that would ease the standoff between the rivals and end the potential for violence as a coalition of opposition and citizens' groups prepared for a march that the government had banned.