On March 8, no-one in Pakistan would have thought a mass movement would erupt in the near future with the potential to overthrow the regime of general Pervez Musharraf. A day later, Musharraf suspended Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, with the illusion that nothing would happen and business would go on as usual.
Musharraf had done this in the past successfully, but it was different this time. Immediately after the suspension, the 80,000 strong advocates' (lawyers') community started agitating against the decision.
This peaked on May 14, when for the first time since Musharraf took power in October 1999, the whole of Pakistan shut down. It was the first political strike in seven years and the first political action during that time that was not initiated by the religious fundamentalist forces.
On that day, Pakistan was united against the military dictatorship and the gangsters of the MQM (the United National Movement, which shares power with Musharraf). From Karachi to Peshawar, all the shops were closed and there was little traffic on the streets. In Lahore, more than 15,000 people demonstrated.
Even traders associated with the military regime went on strike. Great anger was expressed against the killing of more than 40 political activists who had attended a reception for Chaudhry on May 12 in Karachi. More than 200 others were injured by the bullets of the MQM thugs.
This neo-fascist organisation, based on the Urdu-speaking immigrants of 1947, controls the local bodies and almost all the provincial and national seats in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city.
The May 12 shootings that resulted in the killing of innocent citizens and political activists from different opposition parties in Karachi lasted for some 14 hours. All the roads linked to Shahrai Faisal, the main road to the airport, were blocked by massive containers and trucks to stop people from coming to the main road for the welcome.
Although there were hundreds of Labour Party Pakistan (LPP) activists present on different routes to the airport, fortunately none were injured or killed. LPP activists brought some of the injured to hospital. Several busloads of LPP activists were snatched by MQM gangsters, who dragged them inside with guns to their heads.
"I am at Awami Markaz, hiding behind a pillar of the bridge, firing is going on from different sides. Next to me five people are lying in blood. They have been hit by bullets, but there is no ambulance to take them to hospital. I am crying all the time, I cannot help the injured ones, and I may be hit as well", LPP activist Azra Perveen told me by phone at 2pm. We tried to send the media and some ambulances, but it wasn't until two hours later that the injured were rushed to hospital. Sadly, three of them later died. Azra was in a state of shock for the following days.
A private TV channel, Aaj, attempted to show the firing live, so the gangsters went and shot at the TV station's building for over six hours.
The local police and rangers had been given a free hand to deal with the opposition. Chaudhry was blocked at the Karachi airport along with 25 advocates and they were held for nine hours. The state authorities wanted Chaudhry to go to the Sind High Court building where he was to address the Sind High Court Bar Association by helicopter, to avoid the public reception, but he refused.
Following the May 12 massacres, the MQM is neither united nor national, as many members resign from the organisation in Punjab and Karachi.
Also on May 12, the conservative Muslim League, which is part of Musharraf's government, had planned a mass rally in Islamabad in support of Chaudhry's sacking. This rally was planned weeks earlier to counter growing sympathies with the chief justice and the growing demand for an end to the military regime.
All state employees were asked to attend the rally and all sanitary workers were forced to attend. The Muslim League promised between 200-500 rupees (US$3.5-8.5) to each person who attended the historic rally, with free mineral water and food. However there were many complaints that these promises were not fulfilled after the rally. Despite these efforts, not more than 20,000 attended the rally, many just for the chance to see Islamabad.
The rally was a failure and the bloodshed resulting from the regime's attempt to stop Chaudhry's reception meant Musharraf lost support among the middle class, the traditional support base for the military regime and the MQM. Representatives of more than 480 markets in Lahore shut down for the May 12 strike, many of them former supporters of the Musharraf regime.
The advocates' movement was started by the bar associations across Pakistan after March 9. Historically, the advocates have been at the forefront of every democratic struggle in Pakistan. They were the main force behind the movement against General Ayub Khan's dictatorship in the 1960s; they were also responsible for keeping the movement alive during the General Zia dictatorship of the '80s.
Some advocates had been cooperating with the Musharraf government, and some had illusions that it was a progressive military regime. But all that has now gone with the wind.
The movement has developed from nowhere to everywhere. People are talking about it — they are very angry about the bloodshed and have seen the live TV coverage. Mobile phones have been used to widely spread the immediate information.
There have been numerous hunger strike camps, protest camps and both small and big demonstrations, mainly by the advocates during the first 60 days of the movement. The movement was built up slowly but steadily, convincing many ordinary Pakistanis to pay it attention.
The first phase of repression against the movement was in the week after March 9. Many advocates were beaten up by police and arrested. That did not work. Then the regime's strategy was to exhaust the movement by opening up and allowing the demonstrations to take place freely. That brought more people into the movement, including the activists of political parties including the Muslim League (Nawaz), the Pakistan People's Party, parties associated with Awami Jamhoori Tehreek (the People's Democratic Movement — a left alliance including the LPP), the Awami National Party, the Baluchistan National Party and the MMA.
The second phase of repression began on May 4, mainly against political activists. I was detained by Lahore police from May 4-7. The arrests aimed to prevent activists from arranging the reception for Chaudhry when he was due to address the Lahore High Court Bar Association on May 5. He reached Lahore from Islamabad in 25 hours instead of the usual five hours, due to the massive turnout on the main GT Road to welcome him.
The LPP saw the potential of the movement and joined from the beginning. It has printed thousands of leaflets to distribute among the communities, appealing to them to join the movement. It has also organised public meetings and rallies to build the movement.
The chief justice
Chaudhry was no different to the other judges who have helped sustain the military regime. But in his two years of office, he supported ordinary Pakistanis who were subject to human rights violations, and particularly helped women victims of rape and conservative, reactionary customary practices.
Chaudhry also stopped the privatisation of the Pakistan Steel Mills in Karachi. Yet he has also made decisions against trade union rights and has banned some strikes in the public sector.
While not a worthy hero of ordinary people, Chaudhry is someone who helps the people sometimes. He earned respect when he refused to resign and was called to the Army House by Musharraf, in the presence of five military generals who immediately removed him from the post and put him under house arrest. This spurred the anger among the advocates, who labelled it an attack on the judiciary.
The movement is gaining momentum among the masses, as the implementation of the neoliberal agenda speeds up. The privatisation, deregulation and so-called free-market policies have increased the prices of everyday items at a rate never seen before.
People were fed up with the regime, but had no trust in the main political parties. The MMA religious fundamentalists, who had the street power, used this to gain more and more concessions from the regime, including power in the North West Frontier Province and sharing power in Baluchistan. But they had come out to save the regime whenever it was in trouble.
Now the religious fundamentalist are trailing behind the advocates' movement, hoping to hijack it. They have lent their support to the advocates but cannot be trusted to consistently oppose the regime.
Benazir Bhutto admitted last month that the Pakistan People's Party is in contact with the military regime and is ready to share power with Musharraf as president. This sparked great anger among the advocates, who are mainly led by supporters of the PPP, and Bhutto no longer makes such statements.
The advocates' movement is led mainly by the younger generation. It's their first experience in struggle and they are up to the mark. They do not act upon the advice of their seniors to go slow. That is the strength of the movement.
How and when Musharraf will step down, who will take over, if there will be general elections or a transitional government of some alliances, are some of the questions being discussed in the movement. One thing is certain — that Musharraf is weaker to an extent never seen before. He cannot last long. Many have started counting the days. He is a general on his last leg.