Bhutto Urges Protest Against Musharraf

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 8, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 7 -- Following four days of relatively tepid statements, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on Wednesday issued a rousing call to action against President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule, setting up a possible direct confrontation between two titans of Pakistani power.

Bhutto, whose legions of rank-and-file supporters have been conspicuously absent from anti-Musharraf demonstrations this week, urged her backers to attend a major rally Friday in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the army, which Musharraf heads. After that, she said, opponents of emergency rule would begin "a long march" from the eastern city of Lahore to the capital, Islamabad. The 250-mile journey will take them through the heart of Punjab, Pakistan's largest and most politically influential province.

The government has officially banned protests, and the mayor of Rawalpindi said Bhutto's demonstration would be suppressed. But Bhutto said she would go ahead with the rally. "I request my brothers and sisters to reach Rawalpindi at all costs," she said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. The Pakistani people, she said, are "under attack" and need to respond with action.

After she spoke, hundreds of boisterous Bhutto supporters attempted to march to the Parliament building in Islamabad but were beaten back by riot police wielding sticks and firing tear gas in a clash that might preview what lies ahead.

Bhutto's declaration could mark a significant escalation in the showdown between Musharraf and the country's lawyers, human rights activists and political opponents who, since Saturday, have condemned the general for instituting de facto martial law.

Protests thus far have been lightly attended and quickly put down. But Bhutto has an unrivaled capacity to draw crowds in Pakistan; just last month, she brought hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters to the streets of Karachi for her homecoming following eight years of exile.

Large protests, especially ones that elicit violent responses from security forces, could be destabilizing for Musharraf.

"Musharraf would not survive a half a million people on the streets," said Ejaz Haider, a columnist with the English-language Daily Times in Lahore. "That would be the end."

Bhutto's call to action could force a split in the army's chain of command if Musharraf orders the demonstrations to be put down violently.

"I have a feeling that the army can't go along with it if he tries to suppress the protests," said retired Gen. Talat Masood.

Before Bhutto's return, she and Musharraf had engaged in months-long power-sharing talks. Many Pakistani political analysts had speculated that even after the emergency declaration, she would not directly challenge Musharraf for fear of jeopardizing those negotiations.

But Wednesday, Bhutto gave Musharraf a 48-hour ultimatum to meet her demands or confront her in the streets.

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