For the last 10 days, two images have been tattooed on Pakistani minds. The first is of their president, General Pervez Musharraf, encased behind a bulletproof screen, addressing a "mass" rally of his supporters in Islamabad on 12 May.
He said riots then ablaze in the port city of Karachi were an example of "people’s power" against Pakistan’s "politicising" chief justice, Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry. Musharraf had suspended Chaudhry in March, supposedly for "misconduct". But the real cause, say sources, was Chaudhry’s refusal to grant legal cover to Musharraf’s desire to remain president and army chief of staff beyond the expiry of his current term at the end of this year. Pakistan has been gripped in crisis ever since.
The second image was of the "people’s power" lionised by Musharraf. In fact it was the gang violence of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), one of the few mass-based parties in Musharraf’s coalition government, whose base is Karachi. To prevent "politicising" the chief justice from addressing the Karachi Bar Association on 12 May, MQM gunmen torched buses, blockaded Karachi airport, fired on a TV station and sprayed gunfire on all and sundry not of their allegiance.
In two days of fighting, 48 were killed and 150 injured, the majority activists belonging to ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP). Karachi’s 15,000 policemen were silent spectators, under orders not to get involved.
What prompted Musharraf to unleash such violence? Six days before, on 6 May, tens of thousands of Pakistanis had turned out to greet Chaudhry in Lahore. They were united by two demands — that he be reinstated and that Musharraf stand down. It was an example of people’s power Musharraf was not again prepared to tolerate, especially in Karachi, Pakistan’s financial heart, says analyst Naseem Zahra.
"The government had decided by hook or by crook that Lahore was not going to be repeated. So Karachi was handed over to the party that rules it and that has particular ways of pursuing its political objectives. Since the law enforcing agencies did not even pretend to protect the citizens, we can only conclude the government was not opposed to what was happening".
But, she adds, it was "a terrible miscalculation". One day after the carnage in Karachi an alliance of Pakistan’s Islamist parties called a general strike. It was widely observed, not only by them but also by the secular PPP, ANP and thousands of others. Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore and Islamabad ground to a halt not so much in solidarity with Chaudhry as in protest at a state that had marshalled its police behind a partisan goal. Pakistan has rarely been so divided or Musharraf so isolated, says analyst Najm Sethi. "There is Musharraf and the ruling party and the MQM on the one side and the rest of Pakistan on the other. He is facing the worst period of his rule".
He also appears to be resorting to desperate remedies. In granting free rein to the MQM in Karachi analysts say Musharraf may have rekindled the so-called ethnic question in Pakistani politics. The MQM are the party of the muhajir or Urdu speakers who migrated to Karachi from northern India after Pakistan’s creation in 1947.
Although secular in outlook, the muhajirs define themselves as a "nationality" and take a fascist view of all not of their kind, especially those native to Karachi and its Pashtun- dominated neighbourhoods. In 1980s and 1990s the MQM were involved in communal wars in Karachi that left thousands dead. Musharraf is a muhajir, and his clear identification with the MQM in Karachi "has exposed the huge fault-line of ethnicity that divides this country", says analyst Shafqat Mahmoud. "This has huge ramifications because as the self-declared president of Pakistan and also as a never retiring chief of army staff [Musharraf] is supposed to be above any kind of parochial or political considerations."
One ramification of the killings in Karachi is that they may have put pay what many believed was the only peaceable exit from the crisis caused by Chaudhry’s ouster — a "deal" in which Bhutto would support Musharraf’s presidency in return for her repatriation and his renunciation as army chief of staff. Neither now seems possible.
On 18 May Musharraf said Bhutto would not be allowed to return to Pakistan ahead of general elections late this year or early next year. As for a deal with Musharraf, "I cannot envisage such a thing... with 42 (sic) people dead in Karachi," Bhutto said in a newspaper interview the same day.
Instead the former prime minister is calling for a meeting in which Musharraf sits down with Pakistan’s "moderate parties" to agree on a transition to democracy. She is also calling on the army and Washington to end their support to a regime that is increasingly that of one general, one faction and one ethnicity. The grim view in Islamabad is the latter is only slightly less likely than the former.