For Pakistani Students, a Reawakening: 'We Can't Just Sit Idle'

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 12, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov. 11 -- The accounting majors at the elite Lahore University of Management Sciences have rarely demonstrated against anything, preferring Punjabi pop music to protest songs. Cynicism about Pakistan's parade of autocratic and corrupt leaders had replaced civil disobedience, they said.

But in computer labs and cafeterias on this campus and others across the country over the weekend, students were busy making placards reading "Democracy Now" and "Students Against Martial Law" as they prepared to demonstrate against emergency rule. Some said they would join former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's so-called long march, scheduled to begin Tuesday in Lahore and progress to Islamabad, the capital, 250 miles to the west, in defiance of President Pervez Musharraf's ban on protests.

With police lining the streets of Lahore on Sunday, and a Bhutto rally blocked by authorities in Rawalpindi on Friday, many here say they doubt the protest will take place. But even if the long march turns into only a short protest, one thing is clear: Students are beginning to step forward in Pakistan's protest movement, a sign of the country's widening crisis.

"We're getting ready, no matter what. It's time for students to show that the future generation has a voice," said Ashar Hussain, 20, an engineering student at the management sciences school, known as LUMS. "We can't just sit idle and do nothing when Pakistan is suffering. This country is our future."

Student protests and campus unions were once a vibrant part of political activism in Pakistan, even during the nation's birth. But several dictatorial governments have depoliticized campuses by banning protests and requiring students to sign agreements not to participate in such activities.

Students also blame themselves. Disillusioned by a string of corrupt and repressive governments, many said, they stopped caring.

"It's like all this bad stuff happens and you just go numb. Nothing will help anyway, and even our favorite films and songs became about fluffy stuff and love," said Fatima Barbar, 20, an architecture student in Lahore. "This time, though, student consciousness is starting to awaken, and it feels really good."

One of the driving forces behind some of the student protests has been Imran Khan, a shaggy-haired cricket star turned opposition leader and an icon of cool among young people.

Although respected more for his prowess on the cricket pitch and for his charity projects than for his political leadership, Khan, 54, has street credibility among urban dwellers and well-to-do students and has used his popular Web site to encourage them to protest.

After Musharraf imposed emergency rule on Nov. 3, police targeted Khan in a roundup of opposition figures. Officers attempted to arrest him at 1:45 the morning after the emergency was ordered, Khan said, but he fled and has managed to evade them since by sleeping in a different location each night.

"I knew I had to run because I wanted to use this time to get the students out on the roads," Khan said in an interview, adding that he jumped two walls in his garden to escape police. "If I was a little older, I wouldn't have made it."

With juice boxes and teacups scattered over a table, Khan said he had never felt so politically energized and restless.

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