From his presidential palace, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf insists that his decision to enact emergency rule was necessary to combat the growing threat of Islamic extremism within the nation. On CNN, Western political leaders express their outrage, suggesting that the suspension of constitutional rule is nothing more than a power grab by Musharraf.
But within the Pakistani Students’ Association, the reaction is far more nuanced. While all say they support democracy, many are sympathetic to Musharraf’s actions.
On Nov. 3, Musharraf suspended the constitution, fired the nation’s chief justice and declared a state of emergency under which public gatherings and independent media have been banned and over 2,500 Pakistanis have been arrested.
Many students say the recent chaos in Pakistan is only the latest chapter in the story of a nation inching painfully toward democracy.
“Of course, I’m pro-democracy,” LSA sophomore Burhan Razi said.
Razi, a member of the Pakistani Students’ Association, said he wants to see the reinstatement of the constitution but supports Musharraf’s actions.
“I’m also one of the few people you’ll find at Michigan who is in favor of the move by Musharraf,” he said. “The violence was getting out of hand.”
Just days before Musharraf declared a state of emergency, hundreds were killed when a suicide bomber tried to blow up a convoy carrying the formidable opposition leader, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
LSA senior Usman Shahid, president of the Pakistani Students’ Association, said that the urgency of the situation as portrayed in the Western media is a bit over the top.
“Basically if you are living in Pakistan you won’t be disturbed by the suspension of the constitution,” he said. “You’ll look at it and say, yeah, that’s wrong. You gotta understand it’s a third-world country.”
Razi said Pakistan is accustomed to political turmoil.
“We’re used to it. We’re used to things happening all the time. I can tell you that for sure.”
Shahid, who said he generally supports Musharraf but would like to see the constitution reinstated, said the Pakistani Students’ Association is planning to circulate a petition among its members asking the Pakistani embassy in Washington D.C. to urge Musharraf to reinstate the constitution.
But he also said that concerns over the bare necessities of life trump politics for many Pakistanis.
“I don’t think a normal Pakistani would worry about the constitution. People care about food, jobs. I think those are the reasonable concerns they have right now,” Shahid said.
None of the students interviewed have family members or friends in danger in Pakistan.
“Most of the people who come (to the University) come from cities and from influential families at home,” Shahid said. “Basically nothing dangerous happens in the cities.”
Business School junior Wasay Ahmad said the media’s reaction to Musharraf’s actions is overblown.
“Lawyers and judges have been arrested, but overall everything’s the same,” he said. “My sister goes to school everyday, my father goes to work. For life in general, everything is fine. In the sense of everyday life, it’s not a big deal.”
But Mohammad Dar, the vice president of the Michigan Student Assembly, who was born in the United States and has family in Pakistan, said he was deeply disappointed by the recent events in the country.
“Elections are something that the Pakistani people have been promised and denied again and again for many years,” he said. “My family’s not too involved in the public sector, but for the people of Pakistan, the feeling I get is that it’s a continual feeling of disenfranchisement.”
Some of the students suggested that the differing reactions to Musharraf’s actions are connected to class and national origin.
Ahmad said people who haven’t visited the country recently may not be aware of the positive changes Musharraf’s government has brought to Pakistan like the growth of the economy.
Many Pakistani and Pakistani-American students at the University say it will be a long time before Western-style democracy arrives in Pakistan.
“Every Pakistani is wondering if democracy is possible right now,” Shahid said.
Ahmad said Musharraf is moving toward democracy, if slowly.
“I believe in democracy,” he said. “But Pakistan has a long way to get the kind of democracy the U.S. or Europe have achieved. That’s what President Musharraf is trying to do.”
On Sunday, Musharraf, bowing slightly to international pressure, said he would hold presidential elections in January as scheduled. But political science Prof. Ashutosh Varshney, who studies India and South Asia, said he is unsure the elections will be a move toward democracy.
“I think free and fair elections in January would basically set a new path for Pakistan’s recovery,” he said. “But I’m not really sure if they will be free or fair.”