View Full Version : Pakistan Bloodshed Opens New Fault Lines

05-20-2007, 09:51 AM
Pakistan bloodshed opens new fault lines
Religious and ethnic divisions, poverty, power cuts and typhoid: all this in a city of 14 million, enduring 40 degree heat. Jason Burke reports from the violent streets of Orangi, Karachi


Sunday May 20, 2007
The Observer

When Dr Khaled Massoud commutes from his north Karachi home to work at the Qatar hospital every morning he crosses the front line. He drives through Benares' Chowk area, a chaos of potholed roads, hanging electricity wires, rickshaws and overcrowded buses, then turns into the teeming slums of Orangi.

To the untrained eye and ear, there is little to distinguish the two areas. Orangi, where more than three million people live in desperate poverty, shares Benares' equally poor crowds, its chaos, its cholera, typhoid, dysentery and its daily dose of violence. Yet there is a difference. In the former they speak Urdu; in the latter Pashto, the language of the tribes from Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. It may not seem much, but last week it was enough to spark political and inter-communal violence in which 47 died and hundreds were injured.

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'To be honest, we are a little bit scared,' Massoud said yesterday, with considerable understatement.

The linguistic divide marks an ethnic and a political fault line too. In the massive port city of Karachi, home to 14 million and Pakistan's commercial centre, the fissures that split the nation are magnified. The population of Orangi are Mohajir, descendants of immigrants who fled from India to Pakistan when the state was founded as a Muslim nation 60 years ago. Yet the vast slum is surrounded by communities dominated by other ethnicities - Pashtuns, Sindhis from the city's rural hinterland, Punjabis from the north east, Baluchis from the west. The communities, as on a national scale, coexist uneasily, all armed, all mindful of decades of past conflict, all sweltering in the 40-degree heat and the frequent power cuts, all aware that civil war could be just around the corner

'The ethnic strife started in the Eighties, but we thought we had finished with all that,' said Dr Saif Ahmed, head of the Qatar hospital. 'The biggest problem is protecting our staff.'

For the violence of the past week in Karachi is a reminder that, although religious extremism is often seen as the greatest threat to Pakistan, the 'ethnic factor' is also critical.

Though the crisis was sparked by a potent, complex mix of local politics and identities, its consequences are being felt on the national and the international scale. Opposition groups hope it marks the beginning of the end for the government of Pervez Musharraf, the army general who seized power in a coup in 1999. Dr Samina Ahmed, a political analyst and fierce critic of Musharraf's rule, said it was the 'start of a snowball effect'. Nawaz Sharif, whose incompetent and corrupt government Musharraf overthrew, said the general was 'a gone man'. Benazir Bhutto, the exiled former Prime Minister, told The Observer in a telephone interview that Pakistan was heading for 'anarchy and chaos' unless there was a change of government and a 'transition to democracy'.

Such charges are rebutted by Musharraf's ministers, now preparing for crucial elections in the autumn which, they hope, will see Musharraf, 63, re-elected for a further five years. Tariq Azeem, the Information Minister, blamed the opposition parties for fomenting the recent trouble, saying Musharraf 'held his position legally and constitutionally' so his 'legitimacy was not in doubt'.

International observers are watching closely. Any instability in Pakistan, a country of 160 million with nuclear capability and geographically key to the 'war on terror', sets alarm bells ringing. Washington is far from abandoning a loyal, if sometimes reluctant, ally - 'I don't think Musharraf has reached the end of the line,' said Ronald Newman, a senior US envoy passing through Islamabad last week - but concerns remain.

The recent violence was sparked by the visit of Pakistan's chief justice to Karachi. The judge is a critic of Musharraf who, since being suspended in March for alleged abuse of privilege, has become the focus of an opposition campaign. The agitation is led by the legal profession. 'We are citizens of Pakistan first and lawyers second,' Abrar Hasan, president of Karachi's bar council, said as he sat with colleagues planning strikes and political actions in his office in the busy high court of Karachi. 'We lawyers have stood up and taken action like never before, because extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures.'

Accused of starting the fighting last week are the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a controversial party with a reputation for violence that claims to speak for Karachi's majority Mohajir population and are said to have attacked supporters of the chief justice.

The MQM is little known outside Pakistan but is powerful none the less. Playing on a local sense of alienation from central power, the London-based leader, Altaf Hussein, has established his party as the powerbroker in Karachi and the southern province of Sindh. Though described by critics as a 'quasi-fascist' organisation with a 'hidden hardcore of efficient, highly motivated, heavily armed militants who raise money through vast protection rackets', the MQM is an ally of Musharraf, giving the President's ruling coalition a majority in the local assembly.

This weekend the MQM launched a charm offensive to rebut charges that it provoked the fighting to crush the opposition movement and to prove its hold on Karachi. Haider Abbas Rizvi, an MQM MP, said its activists had been peacefully demonstrating when they were fired on by political opponents, the Pakistan People's party and the Pashtuns. 'I was there with my grandmother and child,' he said. 'The idea that we started shooting is ridiculous. Fifteen of our side were killed.'

Yet this version of events is, to say the least, contested. Benazir Bhutto said her PPP activists were 'ambushed with high-power weapons' and Shahi Syed, the Pashtuns' leader, said the MQM were 'terrorists ... 99 per cent of Mohajirs in this city want peace, but 1 per cent do not at any cost. We want to know, who owns Karachi?'

Given the amount of money, trade and people flowing through this seething metropolis, the question is a good one. Through the 1980s and 1990s the city was plagued by vicious inter-ethnic and political violence. Thousands died as successive governments attempted to break the stranglehold that the MQM had got over the city.

Though senior MQM leaders admit 'an unwanted legacy' of violence, they insist the party has changed and is no longer 'ethnic' in identity. Their rapprochement with Musharraf is a 'natural' process, they claim. 'We are a moderate, secular, liberal, progressive party, and he is a moderate, secular, liberal and progressive leader,' said Dr Farooq Suttur, the party's deputy convener. 'Violence just causes more violence.'

Critics say Musharraf's policy in Karachi is characteristic. 'He has parcelled up the country and sold it off to people whose support he needs,' said Bhutto, who still has corruption charges pending against her from her time as Prime Minister. 'He has given Karachi to the MQM like he has given the [North Western] Frontier to the religious extremists.'

Such criticisms are often echoed abroad. Short of practical legitimacy and political power despite a series of elections and a referendum, Musharraf has relied on the army, parts of the bureaucracy and a series of minority parties, including the MQM and an alliance of religious groups, to keep mainstream opposition parties out of power and people like Bhutto out of Pakistan. Though there has been rapid and sustained economic growth, with foreign investment reaching record levels, a soaring stock market and per capita income in the country rising steadily, the benefits have yet to trickle down to the grassroots as fast as the Prime Minister, a former investment banker, would like.

In Karachi there has been investment in hospitals and roads, but illiteracy remains very high and at least 60 per cent of the population lack safe running water. The result is a sense of growing unease, domestically and internationally. Though the press remains robustly critical and independent, watchdogs have raised concerns that a more authoritarian stance might be adopted. And scepticism over Musharraf's ability to fight Islamic militancy along the nation's frontier with Afghanistan, and a series of bombings and attacks in major cities such as Peshawar, is growing.

Although his supporters say 'perceptions do not reflect facts', the result is that the position of the general is weaker than it has been for a long time. Both government and opposition sources confirmed continuing talks between Musharraf's representatives and Bhutto over the possibility of a 'grand alliance' against the radical religious lobby - a sign of the President's sense of fragility.

What few dispute are the root causes for the tension. In Orangi, as in Pakistan as a whole, most live in desperate poverty. Life is a battle for scarce resources and protection, in which almost any weapon is legitimate and any ideology, whether ethnically or religiously based, has a powerful attraction. An increasing number of religious militants come from the city, a known al-Qaeda haven. 'People just want food, healthcare and a job,' said Azeem, the Information Minister. 'They don't care if the man who gives it to them is wearing a suit, a uniform or a shalwar kameez [the traditional Pakistani baggy shirt and trousers].'

Few doubt that the next months are going to be eventful. 'The last few years have been used by the militant groups of Karachi to reorganise themselves. The more powerful among them can now ... paralyse Pakistan's commercial hub in hours,' said Zaffar Abbas, a senior editor of Dawn newspaper. 'The worry is that the relative peace that we have seen for the last few years was an aberration.'

In and around Orangi, there was resignation. 'Almost all the victims who we treated last week were innocents caught in the crossfire,' said Massoud. 'The ordinary people are not looking for trouble, but it is they who suffer.'