The summer of 2008 brought the usual blistering heat to Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf, an army general who had become president through a coup d’etat eight years earlier, led by edict in a country little used to democracy and often subject to the heavy yet firm hand of military rule. Despite the predictable heat, the streets of Karachi thronged with thousands of lawyers clad in the traditional black robes of Pakistan’s judiciary. Some chanted slogans for the release of Supreme Court Chief Justice, Ifthikar Mohammad Chaudhry, who had been under house arrest since 2007. Others maligned Musharraf, their white banners of protest distorted by the shimmering heat.

In March 2007, Chaudhry, who had been bolstering the judiciary’s independence and severing its traditionally close ties with the President, had been removed from office by Musharraf, after resisting army pressure to resign. The event led to nationwide protests, inspiring a 24-month movement led by the lawyers of Pakistan that successfully returned Chaudhry to his position as Chief Justice and restored over fifty other judges who had sided with Chaudhry to their previous offices. For many Pakistanis, the movement’s success represented an important sign of increasing judicial empowerment in a nation where courts had long followed the dictates of either the ruling elite or the military.

Most importantly, however, Pakistan’s lawyers’ movement stands as an unprecedented example of massive, grassroots legal activism aimed both at restoring the rule of law and bringing about social change. At few times in modern history have lawyers expressed their opinions so forcefully and with such unbridled success en masse. By championing Chaudhry’s cause on the streets of Pakistan rather than in the courtrooms of Islamabad, Pakistan’s lawyers demonstrated the power of popular movements to bring about judicial reform, despite overwhelming political opposition. Amid bloody protests and adoring crowds, the image of black-suited lawyers marching in support of a beleaguered Chief Justice continues to represent a unique moment in global legal history.

At its height, the movement brought together elements of Pakistani civil society, which had seldom worked together in the interest of social change. Led by the Chief Justice and his lieutenant-judges, Pakistan’s lawyer-foot soldiers joined with a burgeoning news media, newly formed civil society organizations and hundreds of thousands of sympathetic Pakistanis to rid the country of Musharraf, “the dictator”.  With their goals largely achieved, today, the movement has dissipated, leaving many to wonder about the causes and effects of this seminal moment in the country’s history. Did the movement have lasting and permanent consequences or was it merely an episodic response to Musharraf’s tightening grip on civil society?  Did the movement develop as a reaction to the government’s increasing curtailment of civil liberties or to its blatant disrespect for the rule of law?  Though it may be too soon to tell, the stunning speed with which the movement spread throughout Pakistan, the lasting ties it formed between civil society groups and its startling success at reforming the political landscape seem to indicate the growing influence of the country’s newly independent judiciary, the rise of a revitalized civil society and the beginning of issue-based political dialogue in the country.

A History of the Lawyers’ Movement

In a democracy, the people delegate certain powers to their government, including a monopoly on the use of force. To prevent the abuse of this power, most democracies are divided into branches of government, incorporating a system of checks and balances to ensure that no one branch predominates. An independent judiciary historically has been an integral part of this system, playing a particularly important role in checking presidential power. While the Pakistani government has paid lip service to such judicial independence, the country’s courts have long been dominated by the President’s office, acting as a rubber-stamp for its policies.

When Iftikhar Chaudhry was sworn in as Pakistan’s Chief Justice in 2005 under Musharraf’s Provisional Council Order, many Pakistani lawyers privately considered him to be a Musharraf stooge and a tool of the establishment. Soon after his appointment, however, Chaudhry began working to expand the role of Pakistan’s judiciary. While reducing case backlog, he simultaneously expanded the number of public-interest cases accepted by the Supreme Court for review. During Chaudhry’s first year, the Supreme Court disposed of over 30,000 cases – nearly a third of its docket.  Most notably, the number of politically sensitive and contentious suo moto cases (cases seeking to check government power and authority) skyrocketed. In 2006, in connection with one such case, Chaudhry took the unprecedented step of subpoenaing representatives of Pakistan’s feared Inter-Services Intelligence Agency to account for its actions in connection with the “global war on terror”. Musharraf balked at these reforms, perceiving them as direct challenges to his authority.

The Pakistani media, which ironically had gained greater independence under Musharraf’s government, provided favorable coverage of Chaudhry’s decisions, helping him win popular support for his reforms. Increasingly wary of the Chief Justice’s growing popularity, Musharraf took the unheard of decision of suspending the Chief Justice and placing him under house arrest, after Chaudhry refused to resign in the face of corruption allegations widely believed to be politically motivated.

In a nation where public servants regularly succumb to political pressure, Chaudhry’s defiance drew massive public attention. Already popular with the people, the continuing media coverage of his dismissal and principled obstinacy galvanized the masses. Almost immediately, lawyers’ protests in support of the Chief Justice began taking shape in Pakistan’s major cities, drawing large crowds.  In another remarkable turn of events, Chaudhry’s colleagues on the Supreme Court publicly expressed support for their erstwhile colleague.

As the protests grew, violence erupted, though Chaudhry’s supporters remained steadfast. When the Chief Justice was dragged by his hair from a police van, the incident was broadcast live across Pakistani television networks and covered in numerous newspapers, further mobilizing public support for his cause. Before long, other professionals, including doctors, engineers, professors and religious clergy, as well as civil society groups joined the lawyers’ call for Chaudhry’s reinstatement. Aitizaz Ahsan, a Cambridge educated Pakistani lawyer and colleague of Chaudhry’s, became the Chief Justice’s de facto spokesperson and the public face of the movement.  In addition to Ahsan, some of the country’s best lawyers rallied to Chaudhry’s defense in the corruption proceedings pending against him. In the face of overwhelming political pressure, on July 20, 2007, the Supreme Court rejected the spurious corruption charges and declared Chaudhry’s removal as Chief Justice unconstitutional.

The Movement as a Catalyst For Regime Change

In an attempt to reassert his control over the judiciary, in November 2007, Musharraf suspended the Constitution, disbanded Parliament and declared martial law. Without any way of enforcing the Supreme Court’s ruling, Chaudhry remained under house arrest. In response, the lawyers’ movement mobilized again.  Judges refused to take a new oath of office recognizing Musharraf’s legitimacy and were summarily fired. Students protested. When independent media outlets refused to cease airing stories about the protests, the government took them off the air.  Even though public gatherings were forbidden, thousands took to the streets to protest Musharraf’s rule, despite the beatings and arrests that would inevitably follow.

As the demonstrations continued, they grew once again to include diverse swaths of Pakistani society, in addition to the lawyers, professionals and students who had immediately joined the ranks. This growing grassroots support across all segments of Pakistani society coupled with domestic and international pressure eventually proved too much for Musharraf, forcing him to resign in August 2008.

Ensuing presidential elections saw Asif Ali Zardari come to power. While he had campaigned on a promise to restore Chaudhry to the Supreme Court, President Zardari quickly rescinded this commitment, failing to reinstate Chaudhry and the other judges in a timely manner. Instead, Zardari attempted to return the judiciary to its historically subservient role, using the courts to outmaneuver his political rival, Nawaz Sharif, a staunch ally of the lawyers’ movement. After Zardari successfully revoked the sovereignty of Sharif’s home province of Punjab and convinced the remaining Supreme Court justices to declare Sharif ineligible for future political office, the lawyers once again took to the streets. Channeling Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, the movement’s organizers announced a “long march” across the breadth of the country to the capital Islamabad.  Despite blockades and several high profile arrests, the marchers broke through government checkpoints in Lahore. As they neared Islamabad, Zardari succumbed to the movement’s demands.

In the face of additional mass protests and aware of the movement’s success in ousting Musharraf, Zardari reinstated the deposed judges, including Chaudhry in March 2009.  With that, the 24-month-long lawyers’ movement came to an end, with the victorious protesters returning to their homes and daily lives.

The Movement and Its Aftermath

Despite the movement’s success, today many of Chaudhry’s reforms remain unimplemented and the expansion of judicial power and independence, though substantial, still falls far short of that found in most democracies. With its long-lasting impact unclear, critics of the movement have raised a number of concerns and questions about its overall significance for the country.

Some have complained that Pakistan’s wealthy elite commandeered the movement to support its own aims, citing to the movement’s role in defending Sharif, the elite’s favored candidate, as proof of these claims. In fact, the mostly elite class of educated attorneys did lead the lawyers’ protests in Pakistan, though this is unsurprising given the movement’s professional roots and the country’s relatively small middle class. In addition, many of Pakistan’s leaders, such as Nawaz Sharif, benefited politically from their affiliation with prominent lawyers in the movement. Correspondingly, the movement and its leaders became a political asset in the arsenal of Pakistan’s rich, educated elite.  Indeed in many respects the latter half of the lawyers’ movement came to represent a political push against Musharraf and Zardari, rather than a popular movement for the rule of law in Pakistan

Others have suggested that the lawyers’ movement has had a small, even negligible effect on the advancement of Pakistani civil society.  For these critics, civil society develops not as a result of short-lived movements or uprisings, but rather by increasing education levels, labor mobility and rural to urban migration

Despite these and other criticisms, the lawyers’ movement has generally had a deep and discernible impact on Pakistan. Aside from increasing judicial independence and educating ordinary Pakistanis about their constitutional rights, the movement has brought young lawyers to the forefront, has encouraged the establishment of a network of civil society groups and may have ushered in an era of issue-based political dialogue for the first time in Pakistani history.

Educating Everyday Pakistanis

Foremost amongst the movement’s achievements has been its role in educating the general public about the power of the judicial system and its potential influence over the office of the president. As a result of the movement’s messaging, Pakistanis likely have a new perspective on their judicial system, including an expectation that judges will now hold the country’s political leaders accountable for their actions. Because of the publicity the movement received, today, ordinary Pakistanis know considerably more about their Constitution and judiciary than ever before. During the protests, newly privatized Pakistani television channels ran specials on the Constitution and the rights and obligations it affords the people. In addition, various news channels, such as Geo TV, broadcast numerous discussions about the role and powers of both the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice and the judicial system more generally. So extensive was this coverage that during the protests Musharraf targeted GeoTV for its role in educating the people about the movement, prohibiting the channel from broadcasting related programming for several weeks.

Advancing Civil Society

Many of these young lawyers, as well as the students and civil rights activists who joined them, experienced a sense of collective identity formation during the protests, which continues to endure.  The lawyers’ movement provided a venue for disparate parts of Pakistani civil society to work together to achieve nationwide judicial and political reform. This network of NGO’s, professionals and civil society groups has continued to function in the years since the movement’s end.

For instance, many groups established during the movement transformed themselves into aid organizations to provide relief during the recent natural disasters that have devastated much of Pakistan. I personally witnessed the enduring relationships created between these disparate elements of Pakistani civil society at a recent American Bar Association conference on Pakistan flood relief held in Washington D.C. There, I met leaders from Pakistani NGO’s and professional associations who have played an instrumental role in creating systems to deliver aid to areas devastated by the floods. While many of these individuals and organizations first worked together during the lawyers’ movement, their past success has now been translated into effective disaster relief programs to meet Pakistan’s current needs. As USAID’s disaster relief chief, Mark Ward noted, these new Pakistani leaders, formed in the crucible of the lawyers’ movement, constitute the backbone of Pakistan’s new civil society, which is dominated by the middle class, rather than the urban elite, and fueled by a desire for social change.

Issue-Based Politics

The movement also seems to have inspired a burgeoning, democratic, political consciousness in a country long known to elect leaders on the basis of feudal ties and family loyalties.  Though the country has had local and national elections since its independence, Pakistan’s political parties have long been dominated by corrupt politicians, police and government bureaucrats.  In most cases, political leadership has been a matter of family or personal connections. The Bhutto family, for instance, has dominated Pakistani politics for over half of the country’s history. The current head of state, Asif Ali Zardari, is the husband of the former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, who was herself the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Unlike other moments in Pakistan’s political history, the lawyers’ movement did not subscribe to political favoritism and rejected the country’s patronage system.  When the movement did turn political, its message was focused on issues rather than political personalities, a first for the country.  Though still too soon to tell, the lawyers’ movement may herald the beginning of issue-based politics in the country. At this stage, however, what is clear is that an independently organized and highly mobilized rule of law movement gave voice to a broad-based social campaign that successfully defended its mission and inspired ordinary Pakistanis to oust a military dictator and demand that their country’s future leaders respect the judiciary’s independence. All this without the support of any traditional Pakistani leaders or political parties.

The international community has clearly taken notice of the movement’s role in potentially revolutionizing the country’s political dialogue. As many commentators have noted, buried beneath Pakistan’s six decades of dictatorship, corruption and religious extremism has been a liberal tradition that has come to the fore as a result of the lawyers’ movement.  These new developments have even inspired some Pakistan experts to reassess their previous conclusions about the country. In the movement’s aftermath, Stephen Cohen, the noted Pakistani scholar, retracted previous comments he had made about Pakistan’s commitment to constitutional principles; in his 2004 book on Pakistan, Cohen had written, “While Pakistan’s Islamists have enthusiastically cultivated international ties and contributed much to Islamist thinking . . . Pakistan is an ideological ghetto, especially as far as its liberals are concerned”.


If the lawyers’ movement can inspire a merchant in Sindh to sympathize with the trials and tribulations of a Supreme Court justice, teach media outlets repressed for half a century to resist the will of a military-led government and make a bookstore in Lahore quickly sell out of copies of the Pakistani Constitution, then its impact on the country cannot merely be a short-term blip on the radar.  In the end the movement’s enduring legacy may not be in the changes it engenders in the judiciary or in the nature of electoral politics in Pakistan, but rather in its creation of a democratic consciousness amongst all Pakistanis, whether they be lawyers or laborers, scholars or students.


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