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Beginning of the end

Thousands of Shia protesters braved sub-zero temperature for nearly three days as they staged a sit-in in Quetta, refusing to bury 87 victims of the January 10 twin bombings at Alamdar Road that targeted members of the ethnic Hazara community. Their demand: the army should be called into the restive provincial capital of Balochistan where more than 1,100 of their community members have so far been killed in a spate of bombings and terror attacks during the last five years.

The unprecedented protest by the grief-stricken and vulnerable Hazaras has highlighted how this democratic setup has let them down by failing to provide one of the basic fundamental guarantees provided by the constitution – the security of life and property of a person.

The rows of coffins, waiting for burial, appeared as an epitaph for the Pakistan Peoples Party- (PPP) led government, struggling to complete the last days of its five-year term. A solemn faced Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf listened to the grievances of the leaders of the Hazara Shia community and, short of options, announced the imposition of governor’s rule past midnight. Thus ending not just the misrule of Aslam Raisani’s provincial government but also symbolically marking the unraveling of the existing democratic setup.

Balochistan, long considered Pakistan’s soft underbelly, witnessed steep erosion of the writ of the state under the command of the PPP-led government, which failed to check the growing tide of sectarian violence or take measures to curb the simmering insurgency by hard-line Baloch nationalists. Raisani’s government represented the rule of callous, corrupt and incompetent tribal chiefs, which brought only shame and embarrassment to democracy and its institutions.

The same night in Karachi, similar protests against the Hazara killings were staged outside Bilawal House – the presidential camp office – and two of the main traffic arteries of the city. At Bilawal House, Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Inam Memon and Senior Education Minister Pir Mazhar-ul-Haq received kicks, blows and slaps from emotional protesters, who forced them to run for their lives in their entourage of expansive vehicles.

The angry crowd depicted the general mood of the vast majority of Pakistanis. Yes, if they could get hold of elected representatives, they would dispense quick ‘street justice’ to them. The tidings could have never been this ominous for these so-called champions of democracy.

Youngsters carrying sticks and firearms kept Karachi’s main MA Jinnah Road and Shahrah-e-Faisal blocked even past midnight. It was rule of the mob as police and paramilitary rangers took a back seat, as they always do in such cases. Terrified motorists and commuters were on their own as many neighbourhoods remained in a grip of uncertainty, amid rumours of violence and bomb explosions. The railway tracks also remained blocked by protesters, snapping Karachi’s rail-link from rest of the country.

Pakistan’s main commercial hub and industrial city has indeed transformed into a gunpowder keg ready to explode under the rule of the PPP-led coalition. With nearly 7,000 people dead in ethnic, political, religious and sectarian violence and incidents of terrorism and gang wars since early 2008 – the premium and revenge of democracy has indeed been high for this teeming city. The key issues relating to Sindh, instead of being resolved, have sharpened contradictions among various stakeholders – from the dispute over the local government system to the delimitation of constituencies. Today, Karachi and the rest of Sindh is all set to burst into a frenzy of hate and ethnic, political and sectarian rivalries. Karachi has seen demonstrations of mayhem and lawlessness many times, but now the stakes are higher, anger and frustration deeper and the state’s writ and government’s credibility negligible.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the state’s writ collapsed long ago. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other Al-Qaeda-inspired local and foreign militants have been on a killing spree, targeting political and religious rivals and security personnel. Top leaders to political workers, and even children like Malala Yousafzai, all remain permissible targets.

The civil and military leaders have been unsuccessful in coming up with a proactive strategy to counter the threat of religious extremism and terrorism. The inclusion of the internal threat to the country in Pakistan Army’s doctrine, while a welcome step, has come too late.

As another chapter of the Great Game in Afghanistan is about to close with the withdrawal of the US troops by 2014, this war-ravaged state appears all set to brace another round of instability and civil war. Pakistani territory will continue to serve as an extension of this conflict – our much touted idea of strategic depth now working in the reverse order. Today, Pakistan has come to offer strategic depth for many players in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the civil-military leaders fail to inspire any confidence that they are ready for the challenge.

Punjab is bubbling with anger not just because of poor law and order, but also because of growing economic hardships on the back of the energy crisis. No wonder, Dr Tahirul Qadri has managed to mobilise crowds as he marches towards Islamabad, vowing to bring a revolution that overthrows the current ruling elite largely perceived as corrupt and incapable to lead the country. As the federal capital remains under siege, people are listening to what the Canada-returned doctor has to say. He is articulating the grievances of the people, who are desperate for a change – no matter how it comes.

The traditional political players, hoping that the same democratic dispensation will get a fresh lease of life after the elections, stand threatened as many sections of the population are no longer prepared to accept the rules of the game set by these players.

This parliament has failed the country, its people and democracy. People, if they are not manipulated again, are in no mood to allow the return of the same feudal, tribal chiefs, fat-cat industrialists and a handful of ruling families to assemblies in the name of democracy, which stands so open to manipulation and remains corrupt to the core. The rulers have surrendered the country to criminals, forces of extremism and anarchy. They have failed to provide security and ensure the rule of law. The state of Pakistan is all set to implode if measures are not taken to stop and clean this rot.

While a handful of ‘politically correct’ liberals and those with stakes in the system argue for the continuation of the system and holding of elections, the country’s objective conditions require a different set of solution.

But how it will be done and who will bell the cat? These are indeed the two most pressing questions in the murky waters of Pakistani politics where everything is so clear yet so unclear and ambiguous. The longer this situation prevails and the current setup sticks to power, the graver the crisis will become. It is not just the unraveling of the government, but the state itself now stands threatened. There is a need to stabilise the traumatised patient.

The mainstream political parties, unfortunately, do not seem to have the vision, the ability and the capacity to deal with the present crisis. The days of a normal transition, sadly, seem out of reach.

Under these circumstances, everyone – from the man on the street to armchair strategists, analysts and political commentators – is speculating about the future, which is why very few appear ready to place their bet on the possibility of free and fair elections. It seems to be the beginning of the end for the present order. What will emerge from its rubbles still remains shrouded in mystery. But the suspense could end within days. The reverse countdown seems to have started.

The writer is editor The News, Karachi. Email: amir.zia@thenews. com.pk

Amir Zia, "Beginning of the end," The News. 2013-01-15.