Pakistan: Bhutto Boosts Opposition

For the second time in five days, former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto finds herself under house arrest. Last Friday she was hemmed in inside her Islamabad residence behind coils of barbed wire and a phalanx of Pakistani riot police to prevent her from holding a political rally in the nearby army garrison town of Rawalpindi. Today's lockup was an eerily similar replay but on a larger and harsher scale. This time she was not even allowed to come out of her house and address the large gathering of local and international media waiting at the barricades. She was sealed tight inside the comfortable home of one of her top aides in Lahore's tony Defense Housing Authority (DHA). Police padlocked the house's gate, pasted on it two seven-day detention orders that declared the house a "sub-jail," and rolled up a police pickup truck to block it further. The cops cordoned off the street running in front of the house with more barbed wire, farm tractors tied to wagons piled high with sand, and large cargo trucks. The entire quiet, upper-middle-class neighborhood was tightly sealed, preventing anyone from getting out or in. Police even forced neighbors to sign documents saying they would not talk to the media or allow them into their houses. In a plaintive e-mail Bhutto's information secretary Sherry Rehman said it all: "We are trapped in here."

Bhutto and a handful of her senior aides are stuck for at least one week, it seems. Government officials gave the lame excuse that the super security clampdown was for her own good, leaking news that a suicide bomber was on the loose, a terrorist similar to the killer who blew himself up next to her motorcade in Karachi last month, killing some 140 people, a fraction of the tens of thousands who had turned out to welcome her back from eight years in exile. But no one was buying that. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was pulling out all stops to prevent her from launching her "long march," a slow-moving vehicle caravan from Lahore to Islamabad along some 250 miles of the historic Grand Trunk Road. Bhutto was hoping that hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis fed up with Musharraf's eight-year rule and the 10-day-old emergency rule would turn out to greet her or join her campaign. The president and his men were even more determined to scotch it. Musharraf won the day, shutting Bhutto indoors and largely keeping protesters off the streets. But he could be losing the battle. "He should be building bridges to the opposition, not burning them," warned one influential Pakistani businessman.

Indeed, it is nearly impossible to find anyone outside Musharraf's inner circle and his hard-core political allies who have a good word to say about the president or his emergency. "No one wants this military dictatorship," said one DHA resident, a petroleum engineer. "All Pakistanis who have a conscience resent him and his martial law." Another neighbor, a well-dressed housewife, was equally outraged at the heavy security presence and its goal of keeping Bhutto and her supporters off the streets. "I don't support Benazir," she said, "but I don't like Musharraf, and I don't like her being treated this way."

Perhaps even more devastating for Musharraf than public opinion, which is running firmly against his emergency, has been the sudden radicalization of the moderate Bhutto, who has been turning up the heat on him almost daily. Until last week she seemed prepared to swallow hard and go the extra mile in cooperating with Musharraf in order to get some sort of power-sharing deal that the United States and Britain were sponsoring. In return for her relative docility before and after she returned from exile, Musharraf rewarded her with a blanket amnesty from a host of corruption charges. But then came Musharraf's ill-timed emergency order, which was aimed largely at knocking out an independent-minded Supreme Court, which may have been prepared to rule that he was ineligible to serve another five-year term. At least seven Supreme Court justices, including the popular Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, lost their jobs for refusing to rubber-stamp the president's emergency order. Chaudhry remains under house arrest.

Suddenly last week Bhutto began challenging Musharraf, demanding that he lift the emergency, reinstate the constitution and free the thousands of politicians, lawyers, political activists and human rights advocates the security forces have rounded up under the emergency's rules. Then came her house arrest last Friday. Over the weekend Bhutto unexpectedly tried to meet Chaudhry but was turned away by the police. She called him "the real" chief justice, as opposed to the more pliant judge Musharraf swore in as Chaudhry's replacement. Just days before, Bhutto had sounded lukewarm about Chaudhry's reinstatement, perhaps fearing that if it happened he would rule her sweetheart amnesty deal unconstitutional. Now she says she's on Chaudhry's side. Yesterday she went further, ruling out any more negotiations with Musharraf. "We are saying no to any more talks," she said, until he lifts the emergency. One influential Pakistani who does not want to be named and is in touch with both the president and Bhutto says frankly that their previous relationship has "soured badly."

Judging from the hard line emanating from her shuttered house today the rupture has widened and is now perhaps irreparable. Ratcheting up her rhetoric, she called for his resignation. "It's time for him to go," she told Reuters by phone. "He must quit as president." She added that she would not serve as prime minister under a Musharraf presidency and that her party would likely boycott the early January general elections that Musharraf said on Sunday would be held under the draconian emergency decree. That was music to the ears of the divided opposition parties, which have seen Bhutto's flirtation with Musharraf over the past few months as killing any chance for the opposition unity that may be necessary to force Musharraf out of office. Previously Bhutto seemed willing to serve as premier with Musharraf as head of state. "Ms. Bhutto's agreeing to the joint opposition's demand for Gen. Musharraf's resignation is a step forward in the nation's long march toward getting [the] constitution and the judiciary restored," exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said today from Saudi Arabia. Bhutto and Sharif had concluded a pact to oppose Musharraf last year, but it became a dead letter when she resumed back-channel talks with the president and his men.

While opposition unity is doubtless a long way off, Bhutto's newfound uncompromising stand has heartened a beleaguered opposition. It comes at a crucial time. Most of Sharif's top political aides are either detained or underground. Even two key leaders of Islamist political parties are under house arrest. Cricket icon and opposition firebrand Imran Khan is on the run. He told NEWSWEEK that he went into hiding to prevent his detention after the police burst into his house, terrorizing his 85-year-old father. Khan skipped out the back window and climbed over two walls to escape. He is not sleeping in the same house on consecutive nights, keeping on the move and trying to galvanize Lahore's relatively blasé university students into an anti-Musharraf political force. He says he is hoping to lead a student protest at the University of Punjab in Lahore tomorrow. While saying that Bhutto had previously "betrayed" the opposition by negotiating with Musharraf, he was now willing to welcome her onboard what he hoped would be a rejuvenated antiregime movement.

But the opposition is visibly feeble. The "long march" that Bhutto had called for today fizzled badly without her presence. Even so, dozens of protesters showed a combative spirit. Despite the heavy police presence and the many roadblocks in the DHA, groups of six to 12 Bhutto supporters kept emerging out of side streets. They were quickly surrounded by the police, and dozens of cameramen and reporters recording their arrests. Most went peacefully, shouting slogans such as "Benazir prime minister!" and "Damn the government of batons and bullets!" as cops forced them into police vans. "Musharraf talks about stopping terrorism," says Makhdun Mohkar Hussain, a PPP activist who bravely turned up. "He is the real terrorist." Some PPP activists remained upbeat despite the odds. "Today is not a defeat," says PPP stalwart Abid Hussain. "Our struggle for democracy is a very long-term process that we will win someday." Today's protest may be only the beginning.

Pakistan: Bhutto Boosts Opposition | World