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Pakistani Protesters Gear Up For Indefinite Sit-In

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to Pakistan, where the troubled president faces Islamic extremism and a collapsing economy. And more problems are on the way for Asif Ali Zardari. Thousands of his opponents from around the country are planning to make their way to the capital of Islamabad for an indefinite sit-in. But earlier today, government officials temporarily banned protests and began rounding up activists.

NPR's Philip Reeves has this report.

PHILIP REEVES: When Zardari became president of Pakistan, he made a speech to Parliament.

President ASIF AL-ZARDARI (Pakistan): We need to banish forever the politics of destruction and confrontation. People yearn for a better future.

REEVES: Six months on, the politics of confrontation are already back and on the streets.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

REEVES: There have been protests like this almost every day in Pakistan in the last few weeks. This one in Islamabad looks familiar. The same people were also on the streets not so long ago, campaigning for the departure of Pakistan's last leader, General Pervez Musharraf.

Yet again, Pakistan's in the grips of a political crisis. It's been simmering for months. About two weeks ago, the crisis erupted when Pakistan's Supreme Court upheld a ban on Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, from holding office. Sharif's the leader of Pakistan's largest opposition party.

When Zardari's Pakistan People's Party won last year's elections, Sharif's party supported it. The two forgot their history of hostility and joined together to form a coalition government. That partnership soon fell apart, and now after months of distrustful peace, Sharif and Zardari are gearing up for battle. The euphoria that engulfed Pakistan after the elections early last year has vanished.

Political analyst Tarik But(ph) says many Pakistanis now feel deeply disillusioned.

Mr. TARIK BUT (Political Analyst): They feel their dream has been shattered. On 18th February of last year, they felt that democracy has come. But today they felt, you know, let down. They are very much disappointed. They are very much frustrated today.

Mr. NAWAZ SHARIF (Former Prime Minister, Pakistan): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Nawaz Sharif's been drawing big crowds. The Supreme Court ruling banning him from office infuriated his supporters. They're convinced Zardari's behind it. Their anger's fueled by another source. The court also disqualified Sharif's brother, Shahbaz, as chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan's most powerful and populous province.

Zardari responded to the verdict by throwing out the provincial government, led by Sharif's party, and imposing central rule. That's added greatly to the political storm. Tarik But thinks the crisis means Zardari can't concentrate on crucial issues, like tackling Islamist militancy.

Mr. BUT: Because at the moment, Zardari is not focused on one thing. You see, he is holding party meetings in the presidency. So he's holding so many meetings. Well, he's not single-minded. He's not focused on the war on terror.

REEVES: Nawaz Sharif has some important allies.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

REEVES: Pakistan's lawyers took to the streets after General Musharraf sacked the country's chief justice two years ago. They played a big part in Musharraf's fall from power. After Musharraf left, the lawyers turned their attention to Zardari, demanding that he restore the ousted judge. Zardari promised he would, but then changed his mind. So now the lawyers are mobilizing again.

They include Malik Shahazad Ahmed Kayba(ph), a veteran of the Musharraf protests.

Mr. MALIK SHAHAZAD AHMED KAYBA (Lawyer): I was very active at that time, and I took part almost (unintelligible) and in every procession.

REEVES: Kayba and his fellow lawyers will this week hook up with Sharif's party activists for what they're billing as a massive protest. Kayba and his fellow lawyers argue that the verdict banning Sharif from office is invalid, because until the sacked chief justice is restored, they view the Supreme Court itself as illegitimate.

They're not alone in this view. Tahira Abdullah is one of Pakistan's civil activists, another group that'll be taking part in the march.

Ms. TAHIRA ABDULLAH (Civil Activist): I foresee troubled times ahead, but then we are not new to troubled times. We're used to 33 years of the past 62 years have been martial law, military rule by but self-seeking military juntas. And now we've got civilian dictators.

REEVES: It's too soon to talk of a return to military rule in Pakistan. The army's still licking its wounds after General Musharraf's rule when it became deeply unpopular. But as their country heads towards yet another debilitating political power struggle, Pakistanis and others are now beginning to ask if the military will one day be back.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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