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How One Man's Arrest In London Shut Down Pakistan's Megacity
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How One Man's Arrest In London Shut Down Pakistan's Megacity



No city in the world has a political situation quite like Karachi. That Pakistani city, one of the world's largest, is dominated by a single political party and that party is ruled by a leader who has not seen his city in decades. He runs the party from his home in greater London. Whatever that distant leader does affects Karachi and so did something recently done to him. NPR's Philip Reeves sent us a letter from Karachi.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The air is unpleasantly hot and sticky. That's what you would expect in summer, in a giant metropolis beside the Arabian Sea. That heat doesn't deter this flag-waving crowd. They're holding a sit-in in the middle of Karachi. It's in support of a man 5,000 miles away. That man is Altaf Hussain, one of Pakistan's most powerful and controversial leaders. His political party, the MQM, has dominated Karachi for years. These are his devotees. Hussain was arrested in Britain Tuesday on suspicion of money laundering. There's been a crowd here ever since. His arrest's having an extraordinary impact in Pakistan. Karachi's one of the world's largest cities. It's also one of its more violent. When people here heard Hussain was being held by Scotland Yard, they feared there would be riots. They rushed home, en masse, causing enormous traffic jams. After that, Karachi pretty much shut down. Yesterday, the city began coming back to life. Then rumors started flying and, by the afternoon, you didn't have to drive far to see anxiety kicking in again.

REEVES: Normally - this is normally a very busy area in town. Just looking at the shops out of the window - that one's closed, another's closed, open, closed, closed, closed, closed, closed. So the city is locking up. It's strange, seeing a vast and raucous port city stop in its tracks. Karachi is Pakistan's economic hub. It generates the lion's share of the national revenues. Lots of money's being lost, thanks to Scotland Yard's arrest of Hussain. Much of this is about fear - Karachi is awash with feuding ethnic and sectarian groups, armed with guns and grudges. Party workers regularly wind up dead. Hussain's chief following are Karachi's Urdu speakers, who originally migrated from India during partition. His party holds almost all Karachi's 20 seats in Pakistan's parliament. But his real power lies on the city streets, exercised by his multitude of activists. This is all about South Asia's tradition of personality cults, says Karachi journalist, Badar Alam.

BADAR ALAM: And he has, very carefully and very successfully, cultivated a personality cult. He is not just a political leader. He is also known as a spiritual leader for the community that he represents.

REEVES: Hussain's political enemies have, over the years, accused his party of murder and extortion and land grabbing - allegations the party denies.

MUHAMMAD FAROOQ SATTAR: They are fabricated, concocted.

REEVES: That's Muhammad Farooq Sattar, a top MQM politician. In the early '90s, Hussain took refuge in London, and has run his MQM party from there ever since. His absence doesn't seem to matter to his devotees at the sit-in. Sattar says they'll stay here, in the sweltering heat, until they're sure the British are treating their beloved leader properly.

SATTAR: They are concerned about whether his basic rights are being protected. And their gravest concern is safety of his health, his life, his well-being.

REEVES: The order's gone out to Hussain's followers to stay calm and they seem to be obeying. But plenty of people here worry about what might happen in Karachi if their beloved leader winds up in a British jail. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Karachi.

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