Scholars argue about what Shakespeare’s famous line in Henry VI really means, but I prefer to think that the wise playwright understood that law is a protection for the people and a constraint on rapacious rulers. Which brings us to the situation in Pakistan, where President/General Musharraf must be contemplating Shakespeare’s proposition. The glamorous Benazir Bhutto gets the headlines, but the real conflict is between Musharraf and the judges and lawyers who uphold the rule of law.
The latest crisis began last March, when Musharraf suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The rest of the Supreme Court then reinstated the chief justice. After questions arose about the legitimacy of Musharraf’s reelection, the general suspended the constitution and brought lawyers into the streets.
Lawyers. In the streets. In suits, as a Washington Post essayist noted. It’s not the usual image of a revolution. The people leading the rebellion against Musharraf’s undemocratic rule are not embattled farmers, or sans-culottes, or proletarian mobs, or even Buddhist monks. They’re lawyers, people normally committed to quiet meetings, legal briefs, formal argument, and decisionmaking processes both judicial and judicious.
But as Husain Haqqani, a former adviser to three Pakistani prime ministers, wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
Pakistan’s burgeoning civil society, led by lawyers and encouraged by judges ousted from the Supreme Court, is refusing to be cowed. Protests are spreading despite thousands of arrests and the use of tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. More than 1,700 attorneys have been jailed but still more are taking to the streets. University students have joined the lawyers, and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has vowed to violate a ban on public meetings by leading a rally on Friday.
There are a number of important reasons why Pakistan’s attorneys are leading the protests against Mr. Musharraf. They have a long tradition of activism for rule of law and human-rights issues. In 1968-69, the lawyers started the campaign that resulted in the ouster of Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. They also were at the forefront of the campaign against Mr. Zia-ul-Haq, whose 11-year military rule ended when he died in a 1988 plane crash.
The sympathies of Americans should be with the Pakistani people and the rule of law, not with any political player in the current struggle. It is not for the United States government to pick winners in Pakistan, but we should free ourselves of the belief that Musharraf is the only force capable of opposing radical Islamic terrorism in the country. Chief Justice Chaudhry, in Haqqani’s words, “has become a symbol of resistance to arbitrary rule — the man who refused to roll over and disappear, unlike earlier judges who cooperated with military rulers or simply went home when their conscience dictated otherwise.” He may one day be seen as the Joan of Arc or the George Washington of his country’s revival.
Haqqani writes, “Mr. Musharraf seems determined to put his own political survival before the rule of law — actions that warrant the label dictator. Pakistan’s attorneys, and increasingly the rest of its citizenry, seem equally determined to prevent this from happening.” Americans should wish them well.