Long-delayed elections in Pakistan in February resulted in a clear rejection of President Pervez Musharraf and his policies. Musharraf, who came to power in a coup d’état and appointed himself president, was the target of widespread demonstrations after he fired judges and jailed lawyers who opposed him. His defeat changed the direction of Pakistani politics and has some students living abroad cautiously optimistic about their country’s future. In a conversation with Colby, two Pakistani students, Neha Zaigham ’08 and Sanval Nasim ’08, both of Lahore, reflected on the changes in their homeland. This is an excerpt of that conversation.
Sanval Nasim '08 and Neha Zaigham '08
This was a resounding rejection of President Pervez Musharraf. Your reaction?
NZ I was very encouraged. Personally, I was very disillusioned by what was going on for the couple of months before the elections. This was a turning point, I think.
SN I was very excited about the results as well, very enthusiastic. … That was interesting to see how lawyers, students, civil servants, human rights activists—they came out on the streets and demonstrated, mainly against a step that was considered very unconstitutional and against the basic beliefs that the people had—Musharraf declaring emergency and deposing all the judges who had taken action against him. So there was this whole political gloom. And then with the elections there is this cloud of optimism around the city. People are happy, the major parties, the PPP [Pakistan People’s Party] and the PML-N [Pakistan Muslim League: Nawaz Group], have the biggest support in the country. The dynamics of the political scene in Pakistan are going to change.
Was it difficult watching all of this from afar?
NZ It was. I think it becomes so easy to detach yourself from these things, unless you’re actually a part of it there.
SN Difficult for me as well, because over the summer, when I went back home, there were a lot of demonstrations going on, especially in this one place in Lahore called the Mall, where all the government offices are. … The interesting part is that this is the first time since the Sixties that the civil society has mobilized. This time around they are very serious about which direction they are headed in: that Pakistan has to stop being a stooge of the United States and have some independence as far as its politics is concerned and independence in its institutions, such as the judiciary.
Do you think this will just be cyclical? Civil government, then the military again?
NZ Historically speaking, it has been [cyclical]. But the current chief of army staff, I think, is trying pretty hard to distance the army and the military from civil institutions and organizations. I think that’s a positive step and something I hope people in Pakistan hold onto for longer than maybe they had in the past.
SN Musharraf took off his uniform to run for a second term, so his influence on the military is decreasing steadily. This has serious implications for Musharraf because, now that his party has lost and the new people are not willing to deal with him, he is just being sidelined. If he sticks around there will obviously be confrontation between him and the opposition.
Hasn’t he reacted to the election more cooperatively than some people expected?
NZ I think it is in his best interest to have done so, but at the same time people see he has hung on so far and he may continue to do so. Sanval is right. There’s definitely going to be confrontation [if he lingers], because the election has shown his unpopularity among the educated masses.
Political confrontation? Back to the streets?
SN The confrontation would be on issues, specifically foreign issues. The reason there has been this upsurge in militancy in the northwest province has a lot to do with the military. The ISI, the Inter-Service Intelligence agencies in Pakistan, and the military itself helped in the late Eighties to develop the Taliban and place them in Afghanistan and slowly gave rise to such elements, and [now] they seep back into Pakistan through the porous northern borders. But many political analysts are arguing for more social and economic development in the northern provinces. If you work with these militants and encourage them to have schools, for girls especially, and boys, then the newer generation will be completely different from the old one.
Do you think the United States stuck with Musharraf too long?
NZ It still is to a certain extent. It’s pushing the majority to work in tandem with him. But people are saying that is something the PPP needs to distance itself from if it actually wants to work for the people’s will, what they want. I think that’s something that is still there and needs to be addressed. I don’t know how well it will be.
So what is the feeling about the United States and its influence in Pakistan?
SN Even among the most liberal classes, it’s a very negative perception about America’s role, because they always felt, especially after 9/11, the U.S. encouraged Musharraf to stay in power, which is very hypocritical of the United States, to let a military person meddle in our civilian affairs. If the U.S. wants to continue to fight the militancy in the northwest or help Afghanistan fight the Taliban, they have to do it through this new parliament. Neha, you said you were glad we were to have this conversation.
Is that because there are misconceptions about Pakistan’s political situation you’d like to clear up?
NZ I think that it’s more of a general unawareness of what is taking place in other parts of the world, part of the world that’s very important to me. I’m sure there are misconceptions as well. But there are so many other nuances that people tend to overlook. I hope that this will help enlighten people in a way.
Does the election make it likely that you would go back to Pakistan and take part in some way?
NZ I think so. It’s funny you ask, because last week, just after the elections, we were talking and Sanval asked me the same thing. I said, “If you had asked me this question two or three months ago, I probably would have given a very different answer.” I definitely feel more strongly about going back and being part of this, in any way. There is so much to be done in that country.
SN After my graduate studies I will probably go back and teach. It’s human capital that the country needs right now—young people who have studied abroad. At home there are very good schools, and now people are inclined towards staying there because there are so many new opportunities that are coming. About five years ago, when economic progress was at a halt, there was not much to do in the country, so people would just leave, pack up their bags and go make a living somewhere else. Now things have changed completely.