Bhutto at the Barricades

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Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto

With a massive show of force, Islamabad police prevented former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from leaving her house to lead an anti-emergency rule rally today. Police in riot gear and body armor sealed off nearby streets. District Magistrate Kamran Cheema was on site at 7 a.m. to direct police positions. "This is all for the protection of her personal self," he said. "We have had reports that suicide bombers may target her. She is not under house arrest and she is free to leave." His concern for Bhutto's well-being was somewhat belied by the four rows of coiled barbed wire, one metal barrier, two layers of concrete barricades, an armored personnel carrier and a phalanx of police officers eight deep blocking the entrance to her street.

For days Bhutto had planned to lead a rally in the nearby town of Rawalpindi to celebrate her return to Islamabad, the nation's capital, but when President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule last Saturday, the rally morphed into an anti-emergency protest. By Friday morning, however, the protest was hardly able to get off the ground. Overnight, police blocked all private vehicles from entering Ralwalpindi, spread barbed wire across the streets of the protest venue and flooded the park grounds where she was to speak in order to prevent supporters from sitting on the ground. A few hundred protesters clashed with police at the barricades, but any efforts to defy the security forces quickly dissipated under blasts of tear gas.

Meanwhile, Bhutto, trapped in her home in Islamabad, some 10 miles away, was able to receive members of the national assembly. "I'm going in," shouted senator Enver Baig, as he strode purposefully toward the assembled police. They melted away as he passed, then reformed their blockade. Other politicians were not so lucky. Nahid Hayat, a party worker hoping to run for office, stood in front of the police to address the crowd. Before she had a chance to speak, she was bundled into a waiting police car. "I have been given no reason to be arrested," she screamed, as the police slammed the door behind her. Asim Awan, a presenter for the local independent TV station Dawn News, observed that the police were allowing senior level politicians to give speeches and press conferences outside Bhutto's compound, but that lower-level workers were shut out or arrested. Said Awan: "The government knows [the workers] are the machine that keeps Bhutto's party going."

But other than a few dozen politicians and party workers, the streets surrounding Bhutto's house were swarming almost exclusively with journalists and security forces. Even when Bhutto managed to tear her way out of the house and address her public from the open sun-roof of a white land cruiser parked out front, a crowd of teenagers at a nearby empty lot continued to play cricket. The local-language press — generally cynical and conspiracy-minded — grumbled about the theatrics of the whole event, pointing out the lack of visible grass roots support for Bhutto in both Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

It's not that Bhutto doesn't have support, says Awan, but simply that Islamabad has never been a place where crowds gather. "It's not like Sindh," he says, referring to the southern province whose capital, Karachi, saw some 200,000 supporters gather to greet Bhutto upon her return from exile last month. Bhutto's Pakistan's People Party (PPP) leaders still claim the number was closer to 3 million. "People in Islamabad are not willing to get arrested. The Punjabi police [who are in charge of the capital] are notoriously brutal. And there have already been so many arrests — people are afraid."

Even if fear kept her supporters at bay, and the independent television media was unable to transmit her message to her people due to a broadcast ban, Bhutto demonstrated the passionate and stirring oratorical flair that was the hallmark of her campaign against another military dictator nearly 20 years ago. Then she was fighting the regime of Zia ul Haq, the military dictator who deposed, then hanged, her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founder of the PPP. "My fellow Pakistanis," she shouted through a megaphone. "Our great country is under threat. I have not been served any arrest warrants, so technically I am free, but I am being physically prevented from leaving by barbed wire and blockades. This barbed wire is not against me, it is against the hopes and aspirations of the people."

The small crowd of party leaders gathered around her car cheered. The police started laying down another two rows of barbed wire, further locking her in. A water cannon truck pulled up. Still, Bhutto remained defiant. "We consider this a victory because there is no government today. We brought the government to a standstill." Nevertheless, she told the crowd, "If he restores the constitution, takes off his uniform, gives up the office of the chief of army staff and announces an election by Jan. 15, then it's okay." And if he doesn't, she said, "We will come out and fight."

Bhutto's determination to leave the door open to negotiations has left many Pakistanis frustrated and many wondering about her motives. A long anticipated power-sharing deal between the two rivals would have seen Musharraf step down as army chief while maintaining the presidency, with the support of Bhutto’s party. In exchange, Bhutto would have been cleared of as of yet unanswered corruption charges (which she claims were politically motivated), permitted to return after eight years in exile, and allowed to run for the office of Prime Minister, which many assume the populist leader would have easily clinched. Some Pakistanis see her as desperate to be free from those corruption charges. Others say she will do anything to regain power, even if it means making a deal with a dictator. The lack of a popular turnout at today's protests, say some analysts, is an indication of public indifference. Not so, say party leaders, who claim that more than 5,000 workers were arrested overnight. Islamabad police say the number is half that — for the week.

In the meantime, while Bhutto was addressing the crowd, a suicide bomber in the northern city of Peshawar, bordering Pakistan's restive tribal areas, detonated himself at the residence of a government minister, killing four. When Musharraf declared emergency rule last week, he cited the threat of religious extremists. Of course, suicide bombers are easier to prevent in hindsight, but it cannot be overlooked that while government security forces focused all their attention today on one woman calling for democracy, terrorists scored one more victory for their cause.