Turkey to Pakistan: civic action for change

Shaazka Beyerle
2 April 2007

The suspension on 9 March 2007 of the chief justice of Pakistan's supreme court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry for alleged misuse of power in challenging government actions has backfired on the country's president, Pervez Musharraf. A striking feature of the wave of protest against the decision - whose latest manifestation is a mass demonstration in Islamabad in support of Chaudhry outside the supreme-court building on 3 April - is the prominent role taken by Pakistan's lawyers.

The outcome of the continuing Pakistani campaign remains uncertain. What makes it even more interesting is that this is not the first time that lawyers have played a catalytic role in pushing for reform in a predominantly Muslim country. Just over a decade ago, a group of Turkish lawyers launched a nationwide civic mobilisation against corruption and government unaccountability, an effort that inspired millions of citizens to become involved.

Together, the Pakistani and Turkish cases offer valuable lessons about the effectiveness of non-violent strategies and methods.

Shaazka Beyerle researches and writes on people power, and is senior advisor at the Washington-based International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

Also in openDemocracy on the sacking of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry:

Irfan Husain, "Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails" (19 March 2007)

The Turkish precedent

On 1 February 1997, the Citizen Initiative for Constant Light mobilised the Turkish people in an anti-corruption campaign lasting six weeks. It involved new alliances, clear objectives, a sophisticated publicity campaign and the strategic use of a low-risk, mass-action tactic that overcame public apathy and fear.

Then, too, the protests were provoked by a major scandal. On 3 November 1996, a speeding car crashed near Susurluk, in western Turkey, killing three of its four passengers. The dead were a former high-ranking Istanbul police official; a fugitive paramilitary nationalist and drug-smuggler in possession of numerous false-identity documents signed by the then-minister of internal affairs; and the fugitive's girlfriend. The surviving passenger was a liberal-right member of parliament who also led a large group of local militiamen in an area of south-eastern Turkey.

The identity of the victims confirmed the collusion between Turkish security forces, politicians and organised crime. The ensuing outcry claimed the head of the interior minister and damaged the careers of numerous senior law-enforcement and government officials.

The day after the Susurluk crash, Turkish students protested throughout the country. As in Pakistan, their actions were harshly repressed by the authorities. A group of Turkish lawyers decided that the scandal provided an opportunity to tap public disgust, mobilise the people and push for realistic, attainable changes.

Much analysis and planning went into the campaign, and strategic choices were made from the outset. Citizens should feel a sense of ownership in the effort, the lawyers believed. The campaign would be apolitical in order to build a broad alliance, protect against smear attacks and attract the widest support-base. The group opted for a leaderless organisational structure, defined clear goals, built a coalition and, in developing a publicity strategy, analysed the news media's views on corruption.

The organisers launched an innovative action intended to overcome police crackdowns, imprisonment and public fear. For example, lights were turned off nightly at 9pm for one minute; the symbolic message was "a minute's darkness for permanent light." In those pre-internet days, a chain of mass faxing and press releases spread the word. This enabled the organisers to reach out to groups who were natural allies or were influenced by corruption and government unaccountability; in Turkey these included chambers of commerce, unions, professional groups, legal associations and NGOs.

After two weeks, approximately 30 million people had participated throughout the country; many employed further imaginative tactics such as banging pots and pans, gathering in neighbourhood public spaces, and honking horns or flashing car-lights on highways. The next few months saw the launch of follow-up actions to prevent prime minister Necmettin Erbakan using legal loopholes to hinder the inquiries.

In the short term, the campaign succeeded in breaking the taboo over confronting corruption. Though not all the objectives were achieved, the effort empowered citizens, forced the government to launch judicial investigations that resulted in guilty verdicts, and exposed crime-syndicate figures and relationships. In an unexpected twist, the military removed its support for the government, which was forced to resign. Erbakan retained his position for six months, until a new government was approved by the parliament.

By engaging in civic action in these three weeks, the Pakistani lawyers are following in the footsteps of their Turkish counterparts. The legal community has been boycotting some courts and at least fourteen judges have resigned, including Nasir Saeed Sheikh, one of three deputy attorneys-general, and Javed Memon, a senior judge from the southern province of Sindh. The 3 April demonstration in Karachi is notable too - and another echo of the Turks' non-political intention - for the way the lawyers have kept themselves separate from and independent of the simultaneous political-party protest.

The accumulating lawyers' campaign both reflects important shifts in public support and represents the use of tactics beyond protests - including "non-cooperation", designed to peacefully disrupt the smooth functioning of institutions and civic life. They are attempting to harness and wield "people power". In its full form, this involves more than protests. A range of civilian-based strategies - strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, mass actions and other non-violent tactics - is designed to disrupt and dissolve the unaccountable system of government's sources of support and control.

Three principles

Three common principles for success emerge in studying the history of non-violent struggles such as those in Turkey in 1996-97 and Pakistan in 2007:

  • unity - a necessary construction around goals, among groups wanting change, and among people of diverse ages, geographic areas, economic levels, gender and other factors
  • planning - the selection, organisation and sequencing of a range of non-violent actions based on a strategy to delegitimise the unaccountable system, and to undermine its sources of support and control (the units that make decisions or carry out orders)
  • non-violent discipline - absolutely essential to undermine the loyalties of these pillars of support.

The few, renegade Pakistani demonstrators throwing stones are harming their own cause. It is not possible to shift towards your side those you threaten to harm. Non-violent discipline also builds longevity into the campaign, while protestor violence sidelines the participation of ordinary citizens. Additionally, non-violent campaigns need to be homegrown to have credibility, build alliances and enlist ordinary people (see Paul Rogers, "There are alternatives", 30 March 2006).

Pakistani lawyers face the prospect of the repression visited on most earlier successful civic campaigns and movements - from Turkey itself to South Africa's anti-apartheid campaigns, to Solidarity in Poland, to Chile's anti-Pinochet forces. But if they, like those before them, can harness civic power through the strategic, coordinated use of low-risk non-violent methods and mass actions, they may succeed in moving their country towards real democracy.

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