Despite the risks of challenging a repressive military regime, young people in Pakistan are taking their protests to the streets, to the Web — and even to the beach.
KARACHI, Pakistan — The crowd on the beach looked confused at first as the young men and women acted out a play on the oil-covered sand.
Clearly, the magician with the mustache was a bad guy, a squatter who refused to leave the poor family’s home but claimed he would bring them fabulous riches. And the magician’s watchman was even more of a nightmare, demanding food for himself and his dog.
There’s no electricity. The mother dies. And still, the magician refuses to leave.
“I can’t go,” he said. “It’s my duty to bring prosperity to this house.”
The audience of 100 men circling the amateur actors soon figured it out: The magician represented President Pervez Musharraf, and the watchman was the army.
“If you had brought the real Musharraf, we would have beaten him up,” said Hafiz Ullah, 25, a security guard, to a smattering of applause.
This play—only 10 minutes long—is just one form of protest that young people in Pakistan are now trying against a regime that has handed out jail time to anyone opposing it or threatening “public order.” For decades, military rulers have effectively silenced protests at colleges and by other young people. Political parties have been banned from college campuses, although some have moved underground. Political rallies are not allowed on campuses.
Even the major opposition political parties, with their strict hierarchies and inability to make room for new, young blood, have dampened the youth movement.
This has removed a crucial part of any resistance: young people. When protests rocked Pakistan in the late 1960s and early 1980s, demanding the removal of the then-military rulers, young people were at the forefront, with some even being killed.
Pakistan is also a country where young people usually listen to their parents; they wear certain clothes, attend certain schools, work in certain jobs and marry certain people. The idea of “rebellion” is a luxury of the elite.
But since the judicial crisis last year, some young people are trying to broaden the protest movement, regardless of class. Sometimes they work in small groups and sometimes just in “flash” protests on street corners in Lahore, or marching through Islamabad, facing tear gas and baton charges from police.
Asim Butt, an artist in Karachi, has started a “protest art” movement in the city, spray-painting “eject” symbols near the headquarters of the paramilitary rangers.
“A couple of times I’ve been caught,” said Butt, 29, but he has largely gotten away with it by saying he’s doing a school art project.
Such protests are not as large as the mass youth movements in Ukraine or Nepal, largely because people fear a repressive regime that is known to “disappear” people for months or even years. But after years of military rule, such rebellion is spreading.
Students have taken their protests online, including to Facebook.
“The moment of truth: The biggest student protest in the history of Pakistan” is how one group is promoted. It counts 1,812 members and carries requests such as “People arrested or injured, I NEED A TWO LINE COMMENT FROM EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU!”
The Facebook pages are covered with thoughts about opposition leader Benazir Bhutto’s assassination Dec. 27, and what it means for the chances of democracy in Pakistan. There are also links to digital maps for cities, good to have if police show up and protesters need to get away.
Another group, called We Oppose Emergency in Pakistan, has 14,809 members. It lists rallies, displays pictures of Bhutto and calls Musharraf power-hungry. It claims that the state of emergency, which was declared Nov. 3 and officially ended Dec. 15, is ongoing. “Emergency is over BUT it is NOT TRUE!” A related blog includes clips of Musharraf speeches, of Bhutto’s assassination and of Scotland Yard investigators helping in the investigation.
The protesters include investment bankers, law students, computer technicians. Only a few have long hair and rail against the machine. And several of the young Pakistanis who are motivating people to protest here have found inspiration elsewhere. Musharraf the magician is played by Saad Mustafa, 20, on winter break from college at the University of Connecticut, where he is studying molecular biology and political science.
Sammad Khurram, 21, left Harvard University last summer to come home and try to motivate young people to protest. He is staying with his parents, but he hasn’t yet told them exactly what he’s doing.
“They think I’m here for some research project,” Khurram said late last month. “I have to come up with a story for next semester. That’s going to be a tough one.”
Six hours after the emergency was declared, Khurram started a newsletter called “Emergency News” that he sends out to at least 8,000 people five times a day. Sixteen hours after the emergency, Khurram ran into his first police baton charge.
Although his family is in Islamabad, Khurram has been traveling to Lahore to network with protesters there. On this trip, he came to Karachi, watching the play put on by the new People’s Resistance group and trying to meet with college “super connectors”—the students who seem to know everyone and who can motivate people to protest. He may be thousands of miles from Harvard, but he still sounds like a Harvard student.
His group is mainly fighting for the restoration of the judiciary—suspended by Musharraf when he declared the emergency and replaced by Musharraf’s handpicked judges.
Khurram tries to keep his name out of the local newspapers, although once his parents got suspicious. They placed him under “house arrest” for 10 days.