Pakistan’s dictator Pervez Musharraf has launched a wave of repression by imposing martial law, banning public assemblies and shutting down independent TV stations.
Socialist Worker went to press just three days after Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan, but already several thousand human rights activists, lawyers and left wing campaigners had been arrested.
In Lahore last Sunday police brutally attacked a demonstration of 2,000 people outside the high court. Eyewitnesses say many lawyers and their supporters were viciously beaten with batons.
However, the popular resistance to the crackdown has been inspiring, says Riaz Ahmad from the International Socialists group in Pakistan.
“For the first time ever in Pakistan there has been an immediate response to the imposition of martial law,” he told Socialist Worker. “Within 24 hours of the declaration of a state of emergency, thousands had protested.”
Musharraf cites the growing “chaos” in the country and the need to tackle terrorism as reasons for imposing the emergency.
But most people believe he suspended the constitution to stop the supreme court from challenging the legitimacy of his recent reinstallation as president.
In fact this is just the latest escalation in an ongoing crisis in Pakistan that is ultimately driven by the country’s role in the US-led “war on terror”.
This crisis has unfolded dramatically over the past six months as Musharraf has escalated military operations on the border with Afghanistan and simultaneously faced a mass opposition movement led by lawyers and the judiciary.
The crisis led to the sacking and reinstatement – and now sacking again – of Pakistan’s chief justice Iftikhar Chaudry.
It has also led to the dramatic return of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who hopes to benefit from the chaos.
Musharraf is a key US ally and has presented himself as the only force in the region capable of taking on the Taliban.
But his commitment to the deeply unpopular “war on terror” has meant he has turned on his former allies in Pakistan – thus increasing unrest and instability.
The US and British governments have issued statements criticising the state of emergency and suggested they may “review” aid to the country.
But US defence secretary Robert Gates gave the game away when he stated, just hours after martial law was imposed, that the US would be “mindful not to do anything that would undermine ongoing counter-terrorism efforts”.
He underlined that “Pakistan is a country of great strategic importance to the US and a key partner in the war on terror”.
The US has given more than £5 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001 – mostly for military use.
Last November the British government signed a ten year partnership deal with Pakistan pledging to double aid to £480 million pounds over three years – and gave a one-off donation of £8 million to Pakistani intelligence services.
There are currently more than 100,000 Pakistani troops fighting an expanding and increasingly unpopular war in the Waziristan border region with Afghanistan and across northern Pakistan.
Since the summer, Pakistan has increased military operations, killing more than 740 people in Waziristan in the last four months. And as the crisis deepens, the war has become more bloody.
The established parties in Pakistan have failed to organise effective opposition to Musharraf, says Riaz.
“No single major political party has called for people to demonstrate. It has been left to the lawyers and NGOs, left groups, smaller parties, trade unions and students to organise the demonstrations.
“Bhutto has not yet called for her supporters to demonstrate against Musharraf. Like Musharraf, she supports the war and wants US backing.”
The Islamist parties built up support by opposing US attacks on Afghanistan. But they are worried about losing out to Bhutto if Musharraf falls.
Much of the left in Pakistan is hampered by confusion over the “war on terror” and by seeing the Islamists, not the imperialists, as the main enemy.
Protests are currently being led mainly by the judiciary and sections of middle class professionals. However, as Riaz points out, “There is panic in the ruling class and that is giving openings to new forces.”
The two weeks before the state of emergency saw the beginnings of some new struggles from workers in the state airline, hospitals and among post workers.
At the same time, hundreds of workers at a major textile factory in Karachi staged demonstrations in response to the killing of a leading trade unionist.
“The stakes are very high,” says Riaz. “A defeat for Musharraf would be a defeat for imperialism. The working class has a huge stake in resisting this state of emergency.”