In April, on the highway outside the little Punjabi town of Renala Khurd, Aitzaz Ahsan was waylaid by a crowd of seemingly deranged lawyers. The advocates, who wore black suits, white shirts and black hrefties, were not actually insane; they just seemed that way because they were so overcome with excitement at greeting the mastermind of news and information about Pakistan.” lawyers’ movement, perhaps the most consequential outpouring of liberal, democratic energy in the Islamic world in recent years. The 62-year-old Ahsan was on his way to address the bar association of Okara, 10 miles away, but the lawyers, and the farmers and shopkeepers gathered with them, were not about to let him leave. They boiled around the car, shouting slogans. “Who should our leaders be like?” they cried. “Like Aitzaz!” And, “How many are prepared to die for you?” “Countless! Countless!”
Pakistan’s lawyers were not, in fact, courting martyrdom, but their willingness to stand up for their convictions, and to suffer for them, has transformed their country’s legal and political landscape. After Benazir Bhutto seemed to leave the field clear for Musharraf to reassert his dominance. But in February of this year Musharraf’s party was routed in parliamentary elections, and Ahsan and his colleagues resumed agitating for the restoration of Chaudhry and the other judges. That’s what he was doing in Okara in April: keeping the heat not only on Musharraf but also on the new civilian government, some of whose members seemed less than happy at the prospect of a truly independent judiciary.
In fact, a man who had done so much to restore democratic government to Pakistan was now threatening the new, elected regime — in the name of democracy. What’s more, Ahsan was pointing the weapon of popular agitation at his own political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, whose leader, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, was dragging his feet on the restoration of the judiciary. The lawyers themselves were talking about a coming “train wreck”; so were nervous P.P.P. officials. But Ahsan was unfazed. “You can’t have a democracy without an independent judiciary,” he told me in one of a series of conversations across Pakistan earlier this year. “And you can certainly not construct a parliamentary structure on the debris of the judicial edifice.” Over the ensuing weeks, Zardari made and unmade a series of promises to restore the judges. A few weeks ago, Ahsan and the country’s lawyers voted to go back to the streets.
Pakistan has all the accouterments of democracy with, at least until recently, very few of the habits of thought or behavior upon which democracy depends. Along with India, from whose territory it was carved out in 1947, Pakistan inherited the English institutions of law, parliament, civil service and the like; judges even wore powdered wigs until about 30 years ago. But something went wrong from the very start. The scholar Stephen P. Cohen writes in his 2004 book, “The Idea of Pakistan,” that the country was conceived as a fortress or refuge from Hindu domination in India, putting security before individual rights. The “key power players,” Cohen argues, including the army, the bureaucrats and the political left, “wished Pakistan to be democratic, but they were not willing to make it so.” Other factions, including feudal landlords and Islamists, did not even wish it to be democratic.
But since Pakistan had a constitution, a judiciary, a parliament and an electoral commission, the country’s military rulers felt compelled to engage in a democratic dumb show, and they rarely failed to secure the active collaboration of the judiciary. When Gen. Ayub Khan overthrew a civilian government and annulled the constitution in 1958, the Supreme Court endorsed the act as a matter of “revolutionary legality.” In 1962, Khan promulgated a new constitution, which transferred many powers to himself as president. In the years to come, the courts would find rationales for superseding constitutions and for rigged elections and referendums; judges would actively collude with military officials against the political parties. A report by the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflict areas, describes Pakistan’s constitutional history as “a series of elaborate jurisprudential efforts to vindicate and facilitate military interventions into democratic politics.”
Aitzaz Ahsan (pronounced “AY-ti-zaz EH-sen”) grew up in this system. He comes from a prominent family in Lahore, a Mughal capital in what is now Punjab, Pakistan’s administrative and cultural heart; the spacious bungalow in which Ahsan lives and works was built by his grandfather in 1926. After the declaration of martial law last fall, he was held there under detention for four months, working out on his treadmill, writing resistance poetry and receiving occasional visitors said to be family members.
We had lunch on trays in his living room, followed by Swiss chocolates. Ahsan ate sparingly; he’s slender in a country where successful men are generally ample. He tends carefully to his appearance: even in the midst of a howling crowd, his elegantly styled mop of silver hair, parted just to the left of center, stays in perfect order. Ahsan has a deep and melodious voice that must work wonders in the courtroom; he speaks slowly and methodically in both English and Urdu. In his speech, his bearing and his restrained gestures, he has the equipoise of the well born. He is, at the same time, a youthful figure with something of the schoolboy’s sly, chaffing manner.
Like Jawaharlal Nehru, another silver-tongued barrister-activist, Ahsan studied at Cambridge, where he earned his law degree. Returning to Pakistan in 1967, he soon joined the Pakistan Peoples Party, which had been founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, and was widely considered the country’s most liberal and forward-looking party. Bhutto became president in 1971, and Ahsan, barely out of his 20s, was soon appointed a minister in the Punjab state government. In 1977, yet another military figure, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, overthrew the government, jailing Bhutto and ultimately executing him. Ahsan began defending hundreds of the journalists and party members whom Zia had imprisoned. “I became,” he told me, “a pain in the neck.” Ahsan — whose wife, Bushra, was herself a prominent activist — spent more than two years in Zia’s prisons. He put the time to good use by writing “The Indus Saga,” a book that argues that Pakistan derives its identity not from Islam, as the theocrats around Zia insisted, but rather from the confluence of “primordial” Central and South Asian cultures.
Soon after Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988, power passed back to a civilian government led by Benazir Bhutto. Ahsan won a seat in Parliament and served as minister of law and of the interior, making him, he says, “virtually the deputy prime minister.” But Bhutto’s inexperience, her imperious manner and the constant interference of the army prevented the government from making much headway. After the president dissolved the government in 1990, Bhutto was replaced by Nawaz Sharif, who then, in classic Pakistani fashion, turned the courts on his political rivals. Ahsan defended both Benazir and Zardari (popularly known as “Mr. 10 Percent” for his reputation for supposedly taking a skim from big government contracts) in 14 cases, including, he says, “corruption against both,” and in Zardari’s case, “kidnapping, ransom and murder.”
Ahsan is almost recklessly outspoken about P.P.P. leaders, even though they are his own political patrons. He speaks admiringly of Benazir Bhutto’s courage and steadfastness but also points out with disdain that she viewed herself as the P.P.P.’s “life chairperson.” And he does not bother to conceal his dim view of Zardari. In the car, as we drove back through the night to Lahore, I asked him how many of the allegations of corruption he believed were justified. “Most of them,” Ahsan said, after a moment’s reflection. “The type of expenses that she had and he has are not from sources of income that can be lawfully explained and accounted for.”
In 1999, Pakistan’s messy democratic interval came to an end in the usual way, with a military coup, this time by General Musharraf. At first, Pakistanis welcomed the relief from chaotic and ineffective civilian government. But Musharraf’s appeal began to wear thin as he rigged elections and rewrote the constitution almost at will, cozied up to the Islamist political parties and, at the same time, made himself America’s front-line ally in the war on terror. But Musharraf might have faced no threat to his continued rule had he not tried to fire Justice Chaudhry on March 9, 2007.
Though a country lawyer who lacked the polish of Ahsan and his ilk, Chaudhry had become something very unusual in Pakistan — an activist judge. He had used his power to hear cases suo moto — on his own motion — in order to take on controversial cases involving, for example, women’s rights and sensitive property issues. Though Musharraf later accused the judge — on very flimsy evidence — of releasing terror suspects, at the time he and others in the Pakistani elite saw Chaudhry as a judicial crusader who had set himself against the government, most notably by nullifying a deal to privatize a major steel company. He was not so much a threat as an extremely vexing gadfly. The president ordered the chief justice to come to an army office and, in the presence of the country’s highest intelligence officials, ordered him to step down. Musharraf had forcibly retired other judges before; so, for that matter, though more circumspectly, had Nawaz Sharif. And the judges had gone quietly. But Justice Chaudhry refused; and he did so, in effect, on television.
The confrontation came at a moment when the leaders of the two major parties were languishing in exile; there was no one of stature to oppose the increasingly unpopular dictator. And after so many years of feeding on cynicism, Pakistanis were almost palpably hungry for genuine heroes. The whole country seemed to follow the Chaudhry story as the chief justice was browbeaten for hours and then, emerging from his ordeal, shoved into a car to be sent to house arrest. Here was a narrative that instantly lent itself to allegory. As Ahsan says, “There have been corrupt and vile chief justices in the past, but he seemed to be a prince — the prince who challenges authority, defies his executioners and was prepared to go to the gallows holding his head up.”
The response was astonishing. When, eight weeks after the drama, Ahsan drove Chaudhry from Islamabad to Lahore, tens of thousands of people lined the streets; the 150-mile trip took 26 hours, and every minute was covered live on television. Ahsan, a seasoned politician as much as an advocate, quickly grasped that he could use the power of public opinion to give the timid judges of the Supreme Court the courage to stand up to Musharraf. For the next three months, he and Chaudhry crisscrossed the country by car, with Ahsan addressing the delirious crowds and the chief justice carefully limiting himself to high-minded speeches to his fellow lawyers.
And it worked. On July 20, the Supreme Court ruled that Musharraf had deprived the chief justice of office in violation of the constitution, which vested such powers in the judiciary, not in the executive. It was a historic victory. Malik Saeed Hassan, a retired judge of the Lahore High Court, a venerable figure who began practicing law in the late 1950s, told me that the decision constituted “the first victory over military authority in 60 years.” With perhaps a trace of hyperbole, Hassan compared the spectacle of Musharraf grudgingly allowing Chaudhry’s return to King John accepting Magna Carta.
In late September, Musharraf filed his candidacy for the presidential election to be held the following week. As the army’s chief of staff, Musharraf was in violation of a constitutional rule prohibiting the president from holding another office. He took care of this problem with a 2002 referendum that allowed him to serve for five years; but that period had now lapsed. Nevertheless, Musharraf was refusing to remove his uniform. Ahsan petitioned the Supreme Court — headed once again by Chaudhry — to declare Musharraf’s candidacy invalid. The court allowed the election to proceed, and Musharraf won; but the court also retained for itself the option of finding the election legally invalid. On Nov. 3, with the court poised to deliver a verdict that Musharraf must have feared would be negative, the general declared martial law.
People who knew Pakistan well were taken aback by the lawyers’ movement. Stephen Cohen, the Pakistan scholar, admits that he “misjudged” the country’s commitment to constitutional principles. In his 2004 book on Pakistan, he wrote, “While Pakistan’s Islamists have enthusiastically cultivated international ties and contributed much to Islamist thinking . . . Pakistan is an ideological ghetto, especially as far as its liberals are concerned.” But there truly was a liberal tradition in Pakistan, buried beneath six decades of dictatorship, corruption and religious extremism. I was struck by the deep sense of embarrassment, even shame, that many Pakistanis feel over their political and economic failures, and their sense of resentment about being viewed in the West as an Islamic autocracy. “We are and very much remain,” Ahsan says, “a South Asian Muslim country, sharing aspirations and history with India — due process, habeas corpus, mandamus, certiorari. We are not a Middle Eastern Arab Muslim country.”
The movement to restore Chaudhry, and the constitution, and the rule of law, held out the hope of disinterring the liberal tradition. In a country where politics taint everything, many of the lawyers were independents. Pakistan’s bar associations were among the few bodies that had consistently selected their leaders through democratic elections; and the country’s 116,000 lawyers had chosen through their bar associations to commit themselves to protest. Ahsan was not then an officeholder, but he worked alongside the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Munir Malik, and Tariq Mahmood, a former judge who had quit rather than accept Musharraf’s blatant rigging of the 2002 referendum. Years of disappointment had made Pakistanis cynical about politics and public life, but these were men whose integrity put them beyond question.
The lawyers see themselves as the custodians of Pakistan’s liberal traditions. Many of the advocates I spoke with in Islamabad and Lahore, and in smaller towns in Punjab and Sindh, had been involved in the struggle against authoritarian rule since as far back as the 1960s and the era of Ayub Khan. Some had been jailed by Ayub, others by Zia or even Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, himself a lawyer but no friend of civil liberties.
I spent one morning at the Lahore High Court, where Aitzaz Ahsan has been practicing for 40 years. The High Court is a splendid compound of tawny brick, trellised arches, glittering domes — an incarnation of the Anglo-Indian tradition. The High Court Bar Association occupies a courtyard at the center of the compound. Between cases the lawyers, as well as venerated elders like Malik Saeed Hassan, camp out in the Bar Room, a dilapidated lounge with sticky benches and tables (where tea rather than alcohol is served), and in the paved brick courtyard, dominated by a great, spreading banyan tree.
The advocates spoke of last year’s epic confrontations as if they were the scenes of a democratic passion play: March 9; July 20; and then Nov. 3, “a dark day in our history,” when Musharraf declared martial law. The lawyers had borne the brunt of the general’s wrath, as they did earlier in the year. Abdul Hayee Gilani, sitting in the courtyard with two colleagues over endless cups of tea, described in detail how, on March 17, 2007, the police invaded the sacred precincts of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, trashing the place and even raining bricks down from a parapet. But that was only a prelude. On Nov. 5, Gilani said, the police executed “the most brutal attack on this compound since the creation of the High Court in 1893.” Lawyers, including women and the elderly and infirm, were manhandled and beaten. Over the ensuing days, more than 500 members of the bar were arrested; many were sent to remote jails beyond the easy reach of families and then denied the routine right to receive food and bedding from home.
Since that time, the lawyers in Lahore, like those all over the country, have boycotted the courts, refusing to appear before the judges who took the places of those Musharraf fired. Many have exhausted their resources. Mohammad Azhar Siddique, a 41-year-old lawyer who served as Ahsan’s traveling sidekick and press attaché, said flatly, “I’m penniless.” He hadn’t paid the rent in months, and he pulled his second-youngest child out of private school. But, he added grimly, “I’m not going to compromise.” The lawyers’ anger and pride, their sense of the righteousness of the struggle, still burned brightly. Gilani said that he and his friends were fully prepared to return to the streets if that’s what Aitzaz Ahsan told them to do. “He organized the crowds and the bar associations,” Gilani said. “It was through his brainchild that we gained the confidence of the people.”
On the morning flight from Karachi to Sukkur, a city in the southern province of Sindh where the Pakistan Peoples Party high command was going for an annual pilgrimage to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s grave site — now that of his daughter as well — Ahsan was approached by Farooq Naik, the law minister and a party leader. Naik, according to Ahsan, asked him to mute his harsh criticism of Zardari and the party. Zardari had reached an agreement with Nawaz Sharif to reinstate the judges within 30 days of the formation of the new government, and Naik implored Ahsan to show some faith and trust. Ahsan agreed to act as if he accepted their bona fides, though he didn’t altogether. He says he believed that Zardari feared that Chaudhry and other apolitical judges might restore some of the cases against him that had been summarily dismissed. Beyond that, he recognized that the P.P.P. was itself a feudal and only marginally democratic body led by a figure accused of corruption and violence. Zardari, Ahsan told me flatly, “doesn’t want independent judges. He wants dependent judges.”
Ahsan and the lawyers no longer had the commanding position they enjoyed in 2007, when they alone stood up against Musharraf. And they had committed the serious tactical mistake of boycotting the parliamentary election, which they predicted that Musharraf would once again rig. The lawyers seemed to have mistaken themselves for a political party rather than a political force. “Lawyers have no right to decide whether to participate or not,” as Tariq Mahmood, the former judge, said to me. Ahsan opposed the election boycott, but he seems to have felt, perhaps mistakenly, that he had to honor it. He had been allotted a constituency but chose not to run, a decision that infuriated P.P.P. loyalists. The election turned out to be surprisingly honest, and the P.P.P. and Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, won an impressive victory despite the fact that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated (leaving the party in the hands of her unpopular husband) and the fact that Nawaz Sharif had not been permitted to return to Pakistan from exile until immediately before the election. The P.M.L.-N, in particular, far exceeded expectations — because, it was widely believed, the party had made the restoration of the judges its top priority.
After the election, the lawyers returned to the streets, declaring a “black flag” week to press their demand for the restoration of the judges. But did Pakistan really still need protest politics now that it finally had a democratically elected government? What’s more, that government had formally embraced the cause for which the lawyers had fought. Some of the civil-society activists who rejoiced at the lawyers’ movement were appalled to hear Ahsan threaten to embark on a “long march” across Pakistan if Parliament failed to bring the judges back within 30 days. “A protest,” said Samina Ahmed, the director of the International Crisis Group’s Pakistan office, “would endanger the credibility and the stability of a democratically elected government in its infancy.” The lawyers’ movement, she said, had lost perspective: “The lawyers have played an essential role, but it is one lobbying group, and it must operate inside a democratic framework.”
Ahsan seemed quite blithe about these concerns. When I asked if he worried that the lawyers could be blamed for splitting the fragile coalition, he said, “If the party doesn’t act, it will force a debate inside the party, and that would be a good thing.” That night he pushed Zardari hard at the party’s conclave near the Bhutto family grave site; Zardari pushed back, insisting, according to Raja Adil Bashir, a party official, that the lawyers “should not try to threaten the government.” And Ahsan kept up the public pressure. That’s why he visited Okara and then the larger city of Sahiwal; both were on the planned route of the Long March.
He had promised the law minister to sideline Justice Chaudhry and to keep a lower profile. But the crowds thronging the markets of both cities were very large and very noisy. Ahsan stood up through the sun roof of his S.U.V. and waved, while men standing on the ledge of a mosque showered him with a great cascade of rose petals. As many as a dozen lawyers hung on to either side of the car as it crawled along. A drummer sent up a tattoo, firecrackers banged, men danced in the street. People shouted “Musharraf is a dog!” and “Go, Musharraf, go!” and “Countless! Countless!” Members of an armed police unit, wearing T-shirts that read “No Fear,” trotted alongside.
The lawyers of Okara were fired up; in Sahiwal, they were feverish. The scrum at the door of the bar association was so violent that the man in front of me was slammed into a plate-glass window, which then shattered. Ishtaq Ahmed, a lawyer with a close-shaved beard, explained the mood to me. “Here we have suffered more than any place,” he said. “During our demonstrations, petrol was sprinkled and lawyers were put on fire. We had 50 injuries, five serious.”
They had been boycotting the courts since the day Musharraf confronted Justice Chaudhry. After the head of the bar association furiously recited the litany of their suffering, Ahsan spoke in his calm, inspirational manner about the battle they had waged against Musharraf. He conscientiously steered clear of his own party. Only at the very end of his 75-minute oration did he wax passionate, chanting a protest poem he wrote while in detention, pausing to let his listeners roar back the lines they had all come to know. Ahsan cross-examined me on the way home. Had I noticed the enthusiasm of ordinary people? Had I seen them standing on the highway and waving and smiling from the shops? “That,” he said, “is the resource we want should there be a Long March.”
And then, a few days later, the pent-up anger and restlessness boiled over in a way that seemed to jeopardize the Long March and everything else. On April 8, a mob of lawyers in Lahore gathered outside an office building in which Sher Afgan Niazi, a despised Musharraf loyalist, was visiting his own lawyer. When he finally emerged, after five hours, Sher Afgan was cuffed and punched by the mob. Here was a televised image to wipe out all those fine scenes of self-control from last summer. Senior lawyers like Tariq Mahmood were aghast. The lawyers’ vaunted moral authority seemed to have dissolved in a spasm of outrage. Who would listen to them now?
The only one who wasn’t worried seemed to be Aitzaz Ahsan. He was ill that day, and when he awoke from a nap to see the appalling pictures of lawyers armed with eggs and tomatoes, he rushed to the scene. He addressed the lawyers and admonished them to put down their missiles. He had arranged to have an ambulance pull up to the front door, and he took a trembling Sher Afgan in his arms and brought him outside. Then everything went haywire: the feeble police cordon broke, and the ambulance driver vanished. That, he conceded, was a terrifying moment. But he clambered up on top of the vehicle and ordered the lawyers to push it to safety. And they complied. It was the nonlawyers in the crowd — provocateurs, it now seemed — who manhandled Sher Afgan. And they, too, were captured on TV.
By the time I saw Ahsan in his Islamabad home the next night, he had been interviewed dozens of times, and his narrative had begun to carry the day. He did one more phone interview, watching the news program at the same time, somehow concentrating while his voice emerged several seconds later. He was a media virtuoso, in his element. We talked when the show ended. “The lawyers have emerged more unified than ever,” he insisted. “And I have become much more famous.” The thought tickled both his vanity and his sense of irony. “I’m being treated,” he said, “like the policeman who’s rescued the cat from the tree.”
Almost everyone I met in Pakistan asked me some version of the question, “Why is America against Pakistan’s democracy?” It wasn’t easy to come up with a good answer. President Bush had, after all, grandly declared in his second inaugural address that the United States would “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” A mass movement seeking the return of constitutional rule in an Islamic nation would seem to be the answer to the president’s clarion call. And yet the Bush administration had neither publicly nor privately backed the movement to restore the judiciary. American officials offer several explanations. “It’s a sequencing issue,” one senior official explains: Musharraf was to be carefully coaxed to make concessions he could live with, like inviting Benazir Bhutto back from exile and ultimately holding democratic elections. Musharraf could not live with Chaudhry, whose very name induced a fit of spleen. “We didn’t want to see Musharraf humiliated,” as this official, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss policy formation, says. And the administration feared triggering any process that might lead to the ouster of the general, who had proved willing to wage the war on terror on American terms. Another way of looking at it was that the imperative of the war on terror had trumped the imperative of democracy promotion.
Once the election demonstrated how very unpopular Musharraf was, the American strategy shifted from preserving his authority to ensuring an orderly transition. This still meant sidelining Justice Chaudhry, who would, in all likelihood, resume hearing the case the lawyers filed against Musharraf and quite possibly force him to step down as president. Senior American officials pointedly declined to join the call to reinstate the chief justice. The Americans were widely believed to be quietly encouraging both Musharraf’s allies and Pakistan Peoples Party officials to find a face-saving formula, including shortening the chief justice’s tenure in office or pensioning him off to an ambassadorship. Tariq Mahmood told me that when Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, obliquely suggested to him that an opening might be found for Chaudhry somewhere in the international bureaucracy, he found himself wondering whether he was being asked to offer a bribe to the chief justice of Pakistan. (Patterson declined to comment.) Mahmood told me he described the five-month-long detention of Chaudhry and his family — for which no legal order had been issued — and asked, “Madame, can you conceive as an American that this could happen in your country?” The lawyers were insisting on democratic principles in the face of American realpolitik.
The chief justice had become a political shuttlecock. Both the Bush administration and the P.P.P. would have liked to bat him down but could not publicly say so. The P.M.L.-N wanted to keep him aloft, both because it had vowed to do so and because Nawaz Sharif, who as prime minister had trampled on civil liberties, would be delighted to position himself as the champion of democracy against a reluctant or double-dealing Zardari. (A quick restoration of the judges might also remove some legal obstacles to Sharif’s political ascent.) Throughout April and into May, the two parties and their leaders engaged in a series of floating negotiations, in Dubai and London as well as Pakistan. Would the judges be brought back right away, with a simple parliamentary resolution, or later, as part of a larger package of constitutional reforms whose fate was uncertain? Would their tenure be curtailed? Would the judges who replaced them and took Musharraf’s oath remain in office? Zardari finally dug in his heels and refused to permit a swift and unambiguous return to office; perhaps he had never intended to make such a concession. The P.M.L.-N withdrew its ministers from the coalition government. And the national bar association, meeting two weeks ago at the Lahore High Court, decided that on June 10 — in what could be 120-degree heat, in their black suits — they would begin the Long March from Multan, in southern Punjab, through Okara and Sahiwal and onward to Islamabad.
I spoke to Ahsan by phone a few days later. He had decided not to contest a by-election slated for this summer. He had decisively chosen movement politics over party politics, and perhaps he was happiest there. Zardari and the P.P.P. seemed to have increasingly thrown in their lot with Musharraf, appointing allies of the president to key posts. Ahsan wasn’t worried that a new round of protests, this time directed in part at his own party, would divide the country. “There’s enormous popular support for my position,” he said. And he was, as ever, blithe in the face of confrontation. “I’m comfortable,” he reported from his home in Lahore. “I have no problem.”