Letter from... Pakistan

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On 19 April over 3,000 Pakistani lawyers protested against the sacking of the supreme court chief justice, writes Haroon Khalid

The 19 April demonstration was one of the biggest and most enthusiastic since the protests started over a month ago. Lawyers of all shades united in struggle against the dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf.

The sacked chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, is getting a hero's welcome all over the country. People line up to welcome him in large numbers on his visits to meet lawyers in different cities. He has gained respect for the thousands of decisions he has made in favour of the welfare of ordinary people. The lack of an alternative political leadership has made a judge the most popular person in Pakistan.

Demonstrations and rallies have been held by the lawyers' movement in all the towns and cities throughout the country.

This has become the first national movement in the past 23 years and has created a groundswell of opposition to the military regime, which is trying to crush the protests at all costs.

As one of the lawyers said, "We are determined to fight till the end." Some of the lawyers have been wearing black bands with the lines, "We are determined to give life for the cause, now we have to see how much power our assassins have." The mood among the protesters has been ecstatic. "We are united in one stand-that is the reinstatement of the chief justice," said one lawyer. "They will not succeed." Women lawyers have also been present in large numbers.

General Musharraf wants to divide opponents of his unpopular neoliberal policies and support for imperialist powers. But it is possible that this opposition may force Musharraf from power.

All political parties, other than the few endorsed by the government, are giving support to the lawyers, but there is a need to transform the movement into a struggle for the destruction of the military regime. Comrades from the International Socialists have attended the rallies, selling hundreds of socialist newspapers. The lawyers' leadership in Karachi has kept the movement isolated from political parties until now, but the general mood of the lawyers has recently been positive towards political literature.

Those opposed to General Musharraf and his neoliberal vision need to join hands to build a genuine alternative in their fight against injustice, privatisation, refusal of union rights and suppression of religious minorities.

The national representative bodies for the lawyers have vowed to continue their protests, appealing to professional bodies of journalists, doctors, engineers and architects to join them.

General Musharraf has faced forceful, albeit shortlived, resistance movements before. State telecom and electricity workers have fought privatisation, while journalists have protested against the kidnapping of their colleagues by intelligence agencies. Nationalists in Baluchistan, the country's smallest province, have protested against the assassination of their leader, Akbar Bugti. Peasants on military owned land in Punjab have protested against moves to dislodge them from the fields they have tilled for generations, while teachers have fought the commercialisation of universities.

The current crisis was preceded by corruption scandals around the privatisation of large state firms, price manipulation by cartels of the oil, cement and sugar industries, and a stock market crash engineered by some major brokers and enjoying the support of cabinet members. This has left the ruling class divided, with a considerable number of liberals becoming active in the movement.

The military regime has survived through making temporary deals with different opposition groups. Despite widespread public discontent over rising prices, lawlessness and deteriorating social services, it has not yet faced a serious enough challenge because of the unwillingness of the mainstream opposition to mount a serious challenge to its neoliberal agenda and imperialist policies.

There is also a lack of a left wing party capable of presenting an alternative that can unite different interest groups. However, several groups and individuals from the left in Karachi have recently formed the Awami Morcha ("People's Front") to fill this vacuum.

Haroon Khalid is a member of the International Socialists, Pakistan