US Urges Freedom to Protest; Zardari Rejects Reconciliation Plan, Bans Geo; Sherry Rehman Resigns

The Pakistani government arrested another 200 protesters on Friday, mostly in Punjab province. The Long March demonstrators, in the meantime, reached the outskirts of Lahore.

The arrests continued in the teeth of firm opposition from the Obama administration, which urged the Pakistani government to allow peaceful protests to proceed. Dawn (Karachi) reports that Washington is also leaning toward urging the reinstatement of deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, though they would like to see his powers curtailed (presumably so that he does not provoke a further crisis by indicting the sitting president for alleged past crimes.)

President Asaf Ali Zardari met with his closest political advisers on his return from Iran earlier this week, and they advised him to continue with his attempt to marginalize the leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) of Nawaz Sharif. Zardari is said to have encouraged the courts to exclude them from holding office. Shahbaz Sharif had been chief minister of Punjab province, Pakistan’s most populous and powerful. He has been removed, and Zardari has imposed ‘governor’s rule,’ i.e. rule from the center. The president continues to have protesters arrested for joining in the Long March on Islamabad that will culminate on Monday.

Speaking of Iran, I have been idly wondering if Zardari is brandishing his ability to get support from Tehran, while Sharif may be over-confident because he knows he has Saudi backing. Zardari is said to be a Shiite, and his in-laws, the Bhuttos, are Shiites, and his mother-in-law, Begum Nusrat, was actually Iranian. Nawaz Sharif in contrast is a Sunni and at one point in the 1990s attempted to move Pakistan’s legal system toward sharia or Islamic law. Is some of the conflict between Zardari and Sharif an intra-American culture war?

And, he has now banned the satellite/ cable television station, Geo, which had been reporting on the Long March and had been critical of Zardari. In summer 2007 when attorneys were agitating for the reinstatement of chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then the military dictator of Pakistan, had also banned stations such as Geo. A civilian president should be ashamed to use the same tactics as a military dictator.

The US and the UK had set up an urgent meeting between Zardari, his prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and his military chief of staff, Ashfaq Kayani, hoping that they could convince him to compromise with the Sharif brothers and with the attorneys demanding the reinstatement of former chief justice Chaudhry. Zardari is said to have offended his prime minister by being completely inflexible.

As for Kayani, his US counterpart Adm. Mike Mullen is said to have urged him behind the scenes to avoid another military coup.

Alarmed at the lack of progress, US Ambassador Anne Patterson sought an urgent meeting with the president, but she also appears to have been unable to persuade him. His theory is reportedly that he cannot back down on any of his measures until after the March 16 demonstration in Islamabad, lest he be seen as weak. Politicians should worry less about being seen as weak and more about being seen as off their rockers.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman, a long-time Pakistan People’s Party activist and sometime member of parliament, as well as a prominent journalist, intervened with him over his ban of Geo television (most Pakistanis get their tv via cable, so the government can effectively block the channel). He adamantly refused to reconsider, and she then announced her resignation from the cabinet.

When loyalists such as Rehman begin deserting the ship of state, it is listing pretty badly.

A newly released poll finds that Pakistanis are extremely worried about Muslim extremism. Support for suicide bombing as a way to end a foreign occupation of Muslim lands has fallen dramatically since 2004.

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