- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

ISLAMABAD (AP) - With each image of police dragging demonstrators into vans, and each announcement of protest rallies banned, more and more Pakistanis are saying the same thing: We’ve seen this before.

The fledgling civilian government’s crackdown on opposition parties and activist lawyers behind calls for a mass protest march on the capital is hitting many of the same people targeted in a clampdown by former President Pervez Musharraf _ a move that contributed to the military ruler’s eventual downfall.

Many activists are now comparing President Asif Ali Zardari to the retired army chief _ a potentially worrying sign for Washington as it seeks a stable, friendly Pakistani leadership to tackle al-Qaida and Taliban militants near the Afghan border.

“The only difference is that Musharraf was a military dictator while Zardari is a civilian dictator,” said lawyer Rana Asad, who was jailed for 30 days in Musharraf’s 2007 crackdown and plans to participate in the current round of protests.

Musharraf’s firing of the Supreme Court chief justice in 2007 sparked a protest campaign by lawyers demanding an independent judiciary. As the movement grew, the leader imposed emergency rule _ rounding up opposition activists, firing dozens of judges and blacking out the independent media.

Musharraf, who had seized power in a 1999 military coup, said he was reacting to security threats _ the same reason cited now by the year-old civilian government. But the crackdown only brought more anger, and Musharraf was forced to lift emergency rule and allow the elections that brought the opposition to victory.

Although the new government has restored most of the fired judges, a handful, including the deposed chief justice, remain off the bench. That has prompted lawyers to call for protesters to march from across the country and link up in the capital on Monday. Activists, in defiance of police, began gathering in various cities Thursday to make their way to Islamabad.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a former premier who was allied with Zardari until shortly after Musharraf was forced to resign in August, is urging his supporters to join in. Sharif is furious with Zardari over a court decision barring him from elected office.

The U.S. supports Zardari, whose party came to power amid sympathy following the 2007 slaying of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Zardari has urged Pakistanis to back the fight against militants.

Washington may be more wary of Sharif, who has ties to Islamists and conservative factions less in line with American goals in the region.

Talat Masood, a political and military analyst, says the U.S. risks alienating more Pakistanis if it is seen as too close to Zardari, as discontent with his government grows. Steadfast U.S. support for Musharraf only deepened widespread anti-Americanism.

“I think (Zardari) is really playing the role of Musharraf _ in fact it’s much worse. He’s done it in a much shorter span of time than Musharraf,” Masood said.

Analysts say Zardari’s support among the military’s ranks is weak, a factor that has experts speculating about the possibility of another military takeover in a country that has been prone to coups since gaining independence in 1947.

In some quarters, there is even nostalgia for Musharraf’s era, when the government seemed more functional than the current one.

Musharraf has raised his profile as the political turmoil has deepened. He has given news conferences and speeches, tackling subjects such as the recent attack on Sri Lankan cricket players in eastern Pakistan and his efforts to promote peace talks with India.

Few people are predicting Musharraf will ever be president again, but political repeats are common in Pakistan.

Sharif was prime minister twice in the 1990s, trading unfinished terms with Bhutto. Many Pakistanis welcomed Musharraf’s 1999 coup that ousted Sharif because of widespread disgust with the dysfunction of his government.

Now Sharif may be the country’s most popular politician.

Analyst Ikram Sehgal described Pakistani leaders as “a bunch of comeback kids,” but said the young government apparently hadn’t paid attention to the country’s history.

“They have not learned any lessons,” he said.


Associated Press writer Babar Dogar in Lahore contributed to this report.

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