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Many observers believe anything is possible in Pakistan, and there is certainly no dearth of worst-case scenarios. Common buzzwords include nuclear arms, Islamist fundamentalism and extreme poverty. But until this spring, few would have expected large numbers of Pakistani lawyers to stage rallies demanding the rule of law and a democratic separation of powers in Karachi and elsewhere.
It remains to be seen whether this movement will succeed, or whether army and police will clamp down. Nonetheless, recent civil disobedience already reveals some interesting things. To begin with, globalisation means more than free trade. Today, educated urban middle classes all over the world are inspired by global norms, and not only guided by tradition or, worse, intimidated by generations of suppression. No doubt, cross-border information flows via satellite and internet make a difference.
More important, Pakistani lawyers are calling for a universal principle of enlightenment to be enforced in a Muslim society. Yes, the judiciary must be in a position to decide independently and without fear whether state agencies are acting according to the law or not. While such judicial freedom is, of course, uncomfortable for officialdom, it does serve the general public. People deserve to live in a predictable legal order and not be submitted to state tyranny.
Democracy is not simply about elections. Rather, it depends on institutions that keep government powers in check. The founding fathers of the USA spoke of "checks and balances" when they divided government into three main branches, a system that has since frustrated many presidents in Washington. Similarly, heads of government in other democracies sometimes resent their powers’ legal limits.
In contrast, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf is not used to such constraints. This general staged a military coup, and then promised to end his military career when he became president. He did not keep that promise, and thus still commands the armed forces. Moreover, it seems that he will stay in political power too, regardless of free elections due later this year or perhaps early next year. The media report that he may either let the current parliament confirm him for another term in office before those elections, or strike a deal with former – and still influential – Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who has been living in exile for years and has a reputation of corruption.
Musharraf is a headache for the governments of many rich countries. His regime is dubious in many respects, but they count on him to keep fundamentalism in check. Indeed, he quickly threw his weight behind Washington after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. Overnight, he abandoned the fundamentalist Taliban, who would never have come to power in Afghanistan without the support of Pakistan’s secret service. Nonetheless, the Taliban still use the Pakistani border region as a retreat for their campaigns in Afghanistan, which are becoming stronger by the month. Troops Musharraf sent into the region have wreaked havoc among civilians, but have not been able to do much about the Taliban.
Pakistan's problems are complex. There are no quick fixes. However, Western governments should spell out to Musharraf that he must not brutally suppress the current protests. If the West’s good-governance rhetoric proves empty, donors’ credibility will suffer – and not only in the Muslim world.