POLITICS NOVEMBER 10, 2007
The swarms of riot police who spent the day blocking the tree-lined street in front of Benazir Bhutto's house looked ready to battle an entire army of anti-government rioters. Standing stiff and covered with ribbed hard-plastic shells over their arms and legs, they also looked like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Looming around them were concrete barriers, numerous coils of razor wire, and an armored-personnel carrier parked in such a way to trap Bhutto in her house. School-bus-sized paddy-wagons, large enough to hold hundreds of people, waited nearby. Some of the police carried assault rifles, some waved bamboo sticks, and a few clutched tear-gas guns. But all the preparations were a bit futile: The only people around were journalists, most of them foreign. And even Pervez Musharraf, who declared a state of emergency last Saturday and has since arrested thousands of his political opponents, knew that scenes of police beating on journalists wouldn't help his damaged international image.
Earlier today, hordes of journalists had already descended on Bhutto's house, hoping to caravan along with the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party to a much-anticipated anti-Musharraf rally in Rawalpindi, Islamabad's sister city. Instead, Bhutto woke up to find her house surrounded. Although the authorities apparently never served her a proper detention order, Bhutto was placed under virtual house arrest. A little before noon, Naheed Khan, Bhutto's confidante, told reporters that "the rally will definitely go on" and that Bhutto would break through the cordon; she even compared the siege of a few hundred policemen to Pakistan being occupied by the Indian army. Later, the Peoples Party's main spokeswoman said 1 million supporters had planned to attend the rally, but that several thousand were arrested in the past few days and tens of thousands of others were blocked from entering the city limits of Rawalpindi or Islamabad (Pakistani government officials finally announced Bhutto's release from house arrest at the end of the day, far too late for her to attend the rally). Faced with a lack of actual news to cover, bored hacks and cameramen waited outside of Bhutto's house.
The only high points of the day were when one of Bhutto's supporters or party workers tried to enter the vicinity. Typically, plainclothes police quickly snatched them up and stuffed them into the back of a paddy-wagon. There weren't many arrested, perhaps two dozen all day. But in an area hardly the size of a football field, crowded with hundreds of news channels broadcasting around the world using portable satellite stations, the sight of a political prisoner being manhandled by Musharraf's goons generated a flies-on-raw-meat kind of reaction. With cameramen pushing and shoving (and, in one instance, punching) to get a closer angle, the prisoners took advantage of the attention to chant slogans ("Long Live Bhutto!" "Give these crumbling walls one more push!" "This regime cannot go on!") and flash victory signs. Despite the civil disobedience, there was no relaxation of gender codes: A detachment of policewomen was assigned to rough up the women political prisoners.
Bhutto finally made it out of her house in the late afternoon and gave a press conference, with concertina wire and a line of riot police separating her and the media. "This barbed wire stands in the way of democracy," she said in Urdu over a loudspeaker connected to a white Land Cruiser. When I couldn't make out one portion of her speech in Urdu, a police in riot gear kindly translated it for me. Then, playing to her audience, Bhutto switched to English and criticized Musharraf's weak approach to fighting the "war on terror." She said, "Our army is not fighting extremists because they are too involved in crushing pro-democracy supporters." In the past few days, militants in the Swat valley of the North West Frontier Province have taken over several police stations, lowering the Pakistan flag and replacing it with their own.
An orange sun was setting through the trees while Bhutto announced her plans to lead a "long march" next week from the eastern city of Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, to Islamabad in the northwest. Could she draw a crowd in Punjab? Voters there are more divided, choosing between Nawaz Sharif's party, the pro-Musharraf party, and the Pakistan Peoples Party. Punjabis also tend to be better educated and more likely to read newspapers; they may be skeptical of Bhutto, who is only back in Pakistan because of a "deal" with Musharraf. Her revolutionary credentials, in other words, are in question.
A couple hours after Bhutto went back inside her home and the media frenzy dispersed, I asked Ahsan Iqbal, the information secretary of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Sharif's group), if Bhutto's house arrest and strong anti-Musharraf statements removed some of the skepticism the other opposition parties felt toward her. Iqbal admitted to still having some reservations and said there was some "ambiguity" in people's minds about whether Bhutto planned to sincerely ditch Musharraf or not. But so long as Musharraf continues acting like a brute, Iqbal added, Bhutto would eventually embrace the true opposition movement. "Musharraf has pushed himself into a quagmire," he said. "There is no way out."
NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE is a freelance journalist and Pakistan-based fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.