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Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National.
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National.

Pakistan's plight is world's woe

This weekend, Pakistan is gripped by two alarming crises: a national protest by thousands of political workers and the aftermath of the recent terrorist strikes in Lahore.

This weekend, Pakistan is gripped by two alarming crises: a national protest by thousands of political workers and the aftermath of the recent terrorist strikes in Lahore. For a country that has spent half its life ruled by armed forces and the rest enduring governmental failure and internal violence, its current plight might seem nothing more than a continuation of a 60-year-old narrative of inequality and squandered opportunity.

But, as recent events have shown, the most volatile nuclear state in the world now threatens security everywhere. To many international observers, Pakistan inspires a doomsday scenario for the subcontinent and the wider Middle East. In the years since the September 11 attacks, its misfortunes have echoed the darkest writings of novelists such as George Orwell and Graham Greene. Pakistan has watched the assassination of one former prime minister, witnessed increased tensions with its democratic neighbour India and seen its jihadist factions import their low-level ideological war from the countryside to its major cities.

With each passing year, there emerges a new calamity for the nation's 173 million citizens. The daylight attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team, which resulted in the deaths of six police officers near Lahore's Qaddafi Stadium, were a foreseeable tragedy. The actions of the gunmen, who were reportedly in their twenties and wore everyday clothing as they fired casually on the cricketers' bus and the policemen, mirrored the terrorist exemplar of last November's killings in Mumbai.

Equally predictable, the civilian government's ban on a four-day protest march, due to culminate with a sit-in in Islamabad on Monday, has seen hundreds of political workers beaten and arrested. The images of bloodied protesters evoke memories of the draconian restrictions once imposed by former military dictators Gen Pervez Musharraf and Gen Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. The stand-off also marks the culmination of an inevitable showdown between Asif Ali Zardari, the president and widower of the late Benazir Bhutto and the head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and leader of the Muslim League (N), who was ousted by Gen Musharraf.

But it was the audacity of the attacks in Lahore that set a frightening precedent for the country's beleaguered middle classes. They were the boldest strikes yet in a city regarded as the main cultural, intellectual and artistic artery of Pakistan. The trading heart and strategic fortress of both British and Islamic empires is now unfortunately the latest addition to the list of cities since the attack on the Twin Towers to broadcast the full horror of Islamic jihadism live on television. Others include London and Madrid.

In truth, Lahore and its middle classes started to lose the battle against jihadism a year ago. Last October, three small bombs exploded in shops selling juice in Garhi Shahu, an area widely known to provide a discrete meeting place for young couples. One person was killed and several wounded. In the same month, the president of a local traders association in Hall Road, a congested neighbourhood which is home to dozens of bootleg DVD and music stores, received an unsigned letter threatening to bomb the market. The Taliban has used similar notes in the more restless regions of the North West Frontier Province, where music stores have been attacked repeatedly in recent years. In the case of Hall Road, stall owners held a public bonfire within 24 hours, destroying 60,000 pornographic videos, as government and police officials looked on. While the letter has been described as a hoax by the police chief of Lahore, the Taliban-style moral policing of a number of traders set a precedent in a city where films and music have been sold to consumers, with little fear of reprisal, for more than two decades.

A new report published by the Atlantic Council last week draws closer attention to Pakistan's downward spiral of despair. Many Pakistanis, in tandem with the international community, assumed the country's up-and-down political landscape had hit the ground floor with the Dec 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a deeply polarising figure who was twice-elected prime minister and twice expelled from office. But as the worsening security situation since her death indicates, there is further to fall.

The Sept 2008 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad; the subsequent attacks on the country's anti-terror police headquarters, as well as the rising death toll from numerous suicide bombings, has prompted Pakistan's prosperous middle classes to flee to suburban gated communities policed by private security firms. In Lahore, many restaurants and hotels now post armed guards to search visitors. This is a measure previously unthinkable in a city often praised by politicians across the political divide for its safety record. Lahore, which once served as an example of hope for the battle-fatigued residents of Karachi and Peshawar, is being targeted by insurgents from the country's myriad factions. The prize at stake is the city's liberal history which has inspired literature, music, cinema and the visual arts throughout the decades.

For many middle-class Lahoris - doctors, lawyers and members of the country's business community - other problems are equally manifest. Basic amenities such as the uninterrupted supply of electricity are in short supply and the price of food is increasing. With inflation at about 30 per cent and only one per cent of the country's population paying income tax, the first generation of credit card carrying Pakistanis is increasingly looking to politically stable Gulf countries such as the UAE to provide a safe haven in which to raise their children.

The Atlantic Council report, entitled Needed: a Comprehensive US Policy towards Pakistan, and co-sponsored by the senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, declares little room for optimism for the country's future unless there is a sea change in America's attitudes towards its key strategic ally. The authors call for an immediate US$5 billion (Dh18.4bn) in funding for the country's crumbling economic and military institutions. This figure is to be supplemented by an additional $10bn over the next two years amid renewed efforts to bolster Pakistan's crumbling economy.

As thousands of political supporters from rival parties converge on Islamabad this weekend, Pakistan is more divided than at any other time in its traumatic past. As long as Mr Zardari remains in charge of the PPP and Mr Sharif controls the Muslim League (N), the country will lack a legitimate civilian authority and will remain mired in feudal allegiances. As the attacks on Lahore showed, the military's traditionally strong grip on security is increasingly fragile. Pakistan is not yet a failed state - but hope of rescue has never seemed so remote.

Burhan Wazir is the editor of The National on Saturday

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