Lawyers across Pakistan burst into tears and cries of jubilation today, as Pakistan's Supreme Court restored the country's Chief Justice, Muhamed Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose sacking by embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf last March sparked national protests. "They have given new life to the nation. For the first time in [my] life I have saluted the judges," says Supreme Court lawyer and activist Ali Ahmed Kurd, a Chaudhry supporter. "It proved that Pakistan has not yet gone dry." What it augurs for Pakistan's President may be something else.
The decision is a major blow for Musharraf, who has faced increasing resistance to his rule this year, new pressure from Washington to crack down on militants and a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks around Pakistan in recent days. Many foreign observers believe that Musharraf's days are numbered as leader of Pakistan raising the attendant issue of who could possibly replace America's primary ally in the war against terror in this critical region.
Perhaps because it could free him from one political battleground, early indications are that Musharraf will accept today's decision rather than fight it. His Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz, told the state media that the government will honor the Supreme Court ruling, a point Musharraf has made several times over the past weeks. Humayun Gohar, editor-in-chief of the Islamabad based business magazine Blue Chip, says the ruling will "weaken Musharraf" but believes it could also be a blessing in disguise for the government. They "are fighting on several fronts and now one front is closed. If the government is sensible, it will accept the decision," says Gohar.
Musharraf's decision to sack Chaudhry for alleged abuse of office earlier this year triggered mass protests in cities around the country. Many in Pakistan's moderate middle classes believe the President sidelined the independent-minded judge because he stood in the way of Musharraf's plan to ask the current parliament to hand him another five-year term. With Chaudhry back in office, two questions that will determine Musharraf's future become a lot more complicated. First, should Musharraf be able to stay on as President while remaining as head of the army? And second, should the present parliament reelect Musharraf, or should that vote be left to a new parliament after an upcoming general election? Chaudhry's backers certainly want the courts to get back into the action. Says Munir Malik, the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, "Now the court has to decide whether [Musharraf] can be reelected [while still in military] uniform."
Until the court reengages Musharraf on that issue, the President can deal with the other, hotter front in his battle to remain in charge of Pakistan. In the two weeks since Musharraf ordered the army into Islamabad's Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, to arrest Islamic extremists an order that resulted in the deaths of dozens of militants and ten soldiers Pakistan's Islamist extremists have retaliated with a series of attacks that have killed more than 180 people, most of them soldiers and police. A U.S. intelligence report this week concluded that Pakistan's policy of non-engagement in the lawless tribal areas along its border with Afghanistan has been a complete failure and allowed al-Qaeda to regroup. Washington is already ratcheting up the pressure for Pakistan to do more.
But if Musharraf really does take both gloves off in the tribal areas, that will just increase the likelihood of a split in the army, according to Hamid Gul, former head of the powerful Pakistani intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). "The officer's cadre are liberal, secular, they come from the elite classes. But the rank and file of the army were never secular, they were always religious," says Gul. "If there is a face-off between the army and people, the leadership may lose control of the army. The army does not feel happy. They are from the same streets, the same villages, the same bazaars of the lower and middle classes, and they want the same thing [Islamic law] for their country."
Meantime, in a telling twist, the spate of suicide bombings in Pakistan seems to have cooled the immediate sense of crisis in Afghanistan. Word on the streets of Kabul is that the suicide bombers from Pakistan's tribal areas who until recently headed west into Afghanistan to train Afghan militants or carry out attacks themselves are now heading east into the cities of Pakistan, where they have new motives and better targets to attack. "Normally the Pakistanis come to Afghanistan, but now they are busier in Pakistan," says Waheed Muzhda, an Afghan political analyst who worked for the foreign ministry during the Taliban regime. "The media is also focusing on Pakistan's violence. That is why everyone thinks the violence has been reduced here." Cold comfort for Musharraf. Reported by Aryn Baker/Islamabad, Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi and Ali Safi/Kabul