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November 7, 2007
Bhutto Challenges Musharraf
What observers have feared since President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan declared a State of Emergency on Saturday has come to pass. Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has called for a mass protest of her followers, the largest opposition party in the country, for Friday in a direct challenge to Musharraf's authority:
The threat of mass protest by Ms. Bhutto, the most powerful opposition politician in the country, represents an escalation in the opposition to General Musharraf. This puts Musharraf in quite a bind. If he arrests Bhutto, chances are good that the demonstration on Friday will be huge. If he doesn't arrest her, he appears weak. What he will apparently do is hope that Bhutto can't turn out the numbers of demonstrators that she thinks she can.
Until now, Pakistani lawyers have led the challenge to emergency rule, carrying out small protests, and many hundreds have been beaten or arrested. But Ms. Bhutto’s party, the biggest opposition political party, is widely seen as the only force capable of bringing large numbers of protesters onto the streets. The authorities have said they will not allow Friday’s demonstration, which is scheduled to take place in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, close to Islamabad.
“We will ensure that they don’t violate the ban on rallies,” said Javed Akhkas, the city’s mayor, The Associated Press reported. “And if they do it, the government will take action according to the law.”
In addition to the demonstration, Bhutto has called for a march from Lahore to Islamabad:
Ms. Bhutto’s choice for the route of next week’s protest march is particularly significant. Protesters will travel from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad, a route of 162 miles that will bring them through the heart of Punjab, the country’s largest and most powerful province. Much depends on just how tough Musharraf is willing to be. He could fill the country's jails and leave a lot of dead Pakistanis in the streets or he can selectively target the leaders of the demonstration in hopes of getting the people to lose heart, allowing the protests to lose steam on their own.
The vast majority of the country’s army hails from Punjab and the military has hesitated in the past to fire on civilians in the province. Widespread popular unrest there could cause senior Pakistani army commanders to turn on General Musharraf and ask him to resign, some analysts say.
Either way, Musharraf is facing the crisis of his dictatorship. Many people are wondering if he can survive and more importantly, who might be thrown up to replace him if he should go down?