Pakistanis caught between poverty and politics

Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule has left Pakistanis uneasy - but many are more worried whe

For ordinary Pakistanis it's been business as usual this week, despite the declaration of a state of emergency - virtual martial law - by the military government of President General Pervez Musharraf.

While pockets of civil unrest across the country and looming uncertainty about the future have contributed to an overall sense of unease, that is something the people of Pakistan have grown used to.

There is a strong police presence on the streets of Karachi with teams in armoured cars stationed at traditional rallying points like the Karachi Press Club to suppress any protests.

But most people remain unaffected by Musharraf's latest moves to consolidate power and underwhelmed by the political maneuverings of rival players such as the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan.

Most people had grown apathetic to the country's political problems, some residents said. One Karachi-based journalist said Pakistan was cursed with bad fortune.

The country has experienced so many failed political leaders in the past many doubt whether any shift in power will lead to positive change.

M. Naim-ur-Rahman, a Karachi based lawyer, echoed this perspective, saying it was unrealistic to expect people to participate in the political process when so many of them don't know where their next meal would come from. He added that democracy wasn't necessarily a perfect fit for Pakistan right now.

"Democracy only works in developed countries because that's the only place where the [average] citizen can demand accountability [from leaders]," Rahman said, adding that he supported Musharraf in spirit, praising infrastructural developments in Karachi, a city largely ignored by previous leaders.

But Rahman also criticized the leader's actions, saying that even though he was a patriot whose "heart is in the right place, he is not advised properly to fully understand his decisions."

Musharraf announced a three-pronged solution to stabilize what he saw as a country on the brink of chaos, suppressing the judiciary, media and violent extremists.

So far, the full force of emergency powers given to military and police personnel have only come down on lawyers and journalists.

Some Karachi residents are predicting a possible incursion by military forces into Balochistan and the tribal regions of the North West Frontier Province. Others say Pakistani soldiers are tired of attacking fellow Muslims and no longer have the will to fight. Many of those arrested have been released, according to reports.

"The one thing that is certain is that Pakistan is living on a prayer," said one Karachi cab driver. He added that all the forces that were pulling the country in different directions would have torn it apart by now, but for the grace of god.

But there is a growing fear among Pakistanis that the country is headed for a split and could very well be divided along provincial lines. And while many believe "Musharraf is sincere for Pakistan" and the right man to hold the country together, they are also unwilling to excuse his suppression of fundamental human rights.

In Karachi, public sentiment is shifting away from Musharraf as people begin to feel stifled by the government clamp down.

"This clamp down… you're hitting a small mouse with a tank," said Akbar Zaidi, a Karachi-based independent economist.

Zaidi said that the government had gone too far in its measures to suppress what in reality had amounted to mild dissent - and that protests had not been as substantial as opposition parties had been hoping for.

"This is a totally out of proportion response," he added. "[The government] messed it up."

When the emergency was declared, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority made the isolating move of blocking private news television channels indefinitely. Karachi residents turned to satellite television for the news and reports say there was a dramatic spike in the sales of satellite dishes and decoders over a three-day period.

This led to a police crackdown on dealers at the city's largest electronics market on Thursday. Some international channels have been unblocked since.

People are also concerned about the economic impact of continued instability with the price of sundry goods rising almost exponentially and after a rumor that Musharraf had been overthrown and placed under house arrest brought the stock market to it's knees. With poverty still a major problem in Pakistan and most pronounced in urban areas like Karachi, for many Pakistanis, the political turmoil in the country is background noise to rumbling stomachs.

"Those who are with money are always fine," said one city resident.
"Those who are without money are as good as dead."