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Why Street Protests Work in Pakistan

Author: Daniel S. Markey, Adjunct Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
August 15, 2014
Foreign Policy

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Pakistan has a long history of street protests. One puzzle worth contemplating at this moment, when the fate of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government hangs in the balance, is: What makes Pakistan's street demonstrations such a potent political tool, decade after decade?

Back in 2007, I recall conversations with American and Pakistani officials who feared the potential consequences of growing street demonstrations. Having dismissed the chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court, President Pervez Musharraf lacked an effective response to the backlash of protests led by thousands of black-clad lawyers, whose bar associations galvanized national political opposition. At its root, the army-led government lacked popular, electoral legitimacy. Street protests, especially in the face of military power, represented an extra-constitutional means of protest when normal democratic avenues were closed.

The dynamic was not unlike what we have witnessed in repressive, authoritarian systems elsewhere in the world. When public anger and frustration reached a tipping point and protests grew to the tens of thousands without an end in sight, the Musharraf regime was no longer convinced of its ability to shut them down without sparking an even fiercer backlash. Perhaps a more ruthless and powerful regime -- one that faced a less mobilized public -- might have taken the Tiananmen path. Instead, Musharraf, and the institutional army that backed him, blinked. Musharraf resigned from his position as army chief and was forced from the presidency the next summer.

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