Though initially very small, by the beginning of February they developed into a huge demonstration in Lahore. The next day the protests had spread to the North Western Province, and to date five demonstrators have been killed by the police. The expression of anger on the streets put the government under massive pressure.
Since capturing power in October 1999, General Musharraf has survived by claiming that he alone can keep conservative Islamists at bay – a view regularly endorsed by Bush and Blair. However, these Islamic parties have a track record of working with Pakistani military intelligence and the state to target common enemies, which include the poor, religious minorities and the left. This is combined with strong anti-imperialist rhetoric to provide those parties with a radical edge with which to appeal to the growing radicalisation in Pakistani society.
Musharraf has pursued economic policies dictated by the World Bank. This has resulted in privatisations, layoffs, a reduction in agricultural output, and a threefold increase in the price of everyday items. For much of the rural population this has meant ruin, and in the cities it is responsible for a big drop in living standards – but for a tiny minority of speculators, business is booming. The resulting inequality is leading to explosions of anger that most opposition parties, who tend to follow similar economic policies, are failing to channel. Thus it is mainly the right wing Islamist and nationalist forces that have benefited from this vacuum.
In December 2005 hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the construction of a dam on the river Indus. Then, on 18 January, General Musharraf announced that the dam will not be built, due to public pressure – his announcement came a day before another big demonstration was due. Despite the failure of the mainstream parties to use this victory to call for the end of the Musharraf regime – and the big vacuum on the left – people sensed that agitation works. The right wing Islamists, who had backed the government, were on the retreat, and the pendulum had surely swung away from the state.
The cartoons controversy erupted during the same week that sugar prices doubled. In Lahore, one protester against the cartoons said, “The West has looted us economically and now wants to make fun of our beliefs as well.” On 14 February the middle class youth came onto the streets of Lahore and Islamabad at the call of the conservative Islamists. The mainstream and nationalist parties buckled under pressure from the right and joined the call for protests. The pendulum of Pakistani politics had swung back to the right.
Open to all
The right wing Islamic parties are using the cartoons issue to scare away the rest of the opposition from the streets. For them, blasphemy in Denmark is an excuse to ensure that no one resists their moves to label other Pakistanis as blasphemous. The blasphemy laws are regularly used to persecute their enemies.
The democratic-Islamists, who are rightwing Islamists with a parliamentary base, call on Musharraf to demand an apology from the countries that published the cartoon. The jihadi forces, who are right wing Islamists with a more limited base, are demanding a boycott of all European products, and are responsible for the burning down of KFC restaurants. Together, the various groups that constitute this right wing Islamism have succeeded in channelling the anger of the youth.
However, they are not the only ones protesting. In Lahore on 4 February, 15,000 temporary teachers fought the police while demanding permanent jobs and better pay. In Gilgit on 3 February, over 20,000 people marched against the construction of a dam, and on 15 February over 1,500 port, railway and sanitation workers rallied against privatisation.
At the beginning of February 35 left wing organisations, mainstream political parties, and trade unionists came together in Karachi to form the Stop the War Coalition (Pakistan), and hectic preparations are being made for the 18 March demonstration against the occupation of Iraq. Similar coalitions are also being formed in Lahore and Islamabad – and our movement is open to all, without exception. Not since the start the of Iraq war has there been such advance preparation for a demonstration, and all the signs are that this will be our biggest protest yet against the Iraq war. We hope that by organising in this way, we can help swing the pendulum to the left and direct the latent anger that exists against imperialism back towards the Musharraf regime.
Riaz Ahmed is a member of the International Socialists in Pakistan.
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