Pakistani Lawyers Rally for Musharraf's Resignation

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Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, faces a new challenge to his authority. Thousands of lawyers and other activists are headed to the capital Islamabad for a rally this week. They will demand that Musharraf resign and bring back the judges he fired last year.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, long a key U.S. ally, is facing a fresh challenge. Thousands of lawyers and other activists are headed for the capital, Islamabad, for a big rally this week. They'll be demanding Musharraf's resignation and the restoration of judges he fired last year. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: History is repeating itself.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter, chanting)

REEVES: Last year, Pakistan's lawyers took to the streets for rally after rally, after Musharraf ousted the chief justice. Now they're mobilizing again. Thousands of lawyers are setting off on what they're calling a long march across the country, although, in fact, they're traveling by car and bus.

They're converging today on the city of Multan. From there, they'll head for the capital, Islamabad, for a mass sit-in later this week. The security forces there have been getting ready. Once again, Constitution Avenue, home to Pakistan's supreme court and parliament, is sealed off with razor wire and barricades.

The lawyers are not alone. Traveling with them are civil-society activists, retired military officers and civil servants, and a variety of political party representatives. They're united by their hostility towards Musharraf.

The protestors have two goals. One is to secure the reinstatement of Pakistan's chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other judges sacked by Musharraf because he feared they'd invalidate his reelection as president. The other is to demand Musharraf's resignation. He was hanged and burned in effigy in Multan yesterday. Chaudhry himself will be taking part.

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

REEVES: And this man will also be playing a big role. That's Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister. Musharraf ousted him in a coup in 1999. Sharif's regarded Musharraf as his arch-enemy ever since.

Sharif leads the second-largest party in Pakistan's parliament. The largest is the Pakistan People's Party, led by Asif Zardari, husband of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December.

A few months ago, Sharif and Zardari jointly announced that they'd get parliament to restore the sacked judges, and they gave a deadline. Zardari broke that agreement. Sharif responded by pulling his ministers out of the cabinet, though he continues to support the ruling coalition, but the strain on that coalition is growing, and the lawyers' protest will add to that.

Zardari and Sharif also disagree on the future of Musharraf. Sharif wants him removed at once and tried for treason. Zardari's pushing a package of constitutional reforms, clipping Musharraf's powers, but Zardari seems wary of an outright confrontation. As for Musharraf himself, he says he has no plans to resign.

Overall, it's a grim picture in which Pakistan's party leaders are living up to their reputation for internal squabbling. Four months have elapsed since their stunning election victory. The euphoria of that event has already vanished. Many of the 165-million people of Pakistan have other things to worry about. Fuel and food prices are rising. There are endless power cuts. Their worry is simply how to survive. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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