Keeping Pakistan From Falling Apart

Keeping Pakistan From Falling Apart

The pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have moved crisis-ridden Pakistan out of the global spotlight. This is unfortunate, because Pakistan's timid democratic resurgence faces a variety of obstacles, and its stability is more uncertain than ever before. To expect that Pakistan may soon experience a similar democratic transformation is not only excessively optimistic, but also ignores recent history: Pakistan exhausted its own "Arab Street" moment in 2007, when Gen. Pervez Musharraf was forced to resign following demonstrations by a diverse and vibrant civil society movement led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

That was the last time Pakistani liberals were seen on the streets. Since then, public spaces and opinion have fallen into the hands of extremists. In December 2007, months after she returned from exile, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated while campaigning for the country's first democratic elections following almost a decade of military rule. Her victory had seemed certain and would have given the country an experienced and charismatic leader. The more recent assassinations of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities, both targeted for opposing the adoption of a new blasphemy law, highlight how extremists have succeeded in influencing and constraining the political agenda in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, but also in Rawalpindi, the army's headquarters.

Pakistan's liberal intelligentsia is hostage to two undemocratic forces that have steadily risen to power. On the one hand, moderates face the wrath of conservative Islamists and their radical fringe supporters, who condemn the government for its permissive stance on the deadly U.S. drone strikes on the Afghan borderlands. These groups have expanded their popular support in the aftermath of the crisis centered on Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor detained by Pakistani authorities for almost two months on charges of killing two civilians last January in Lahore.

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