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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 April 2007, 15:14 GMT 16:14 UK
Joys of a presidential motorcade

The BBC Urdu service's Masud Alam, back living in Pakistan after 15 years, reflects on how President Pervez Musharraf brings out the best in Pakistanis.

Islamabad gardens
Spring time in Islamabad usually lasts a long time

The cold was expected to relent by late February, but it didn't.

Instead, Islamabad and much of the rest of Pakistan, was visited by Western Disturbance - a weather system phenomenon that brings with it heavy showers and a cold wave from Central Asia.

No surprise

Eventually the change came mid March, but instead of a mild transition into spring, it turned into an abrupt and definite switch from winter to summer.

Spring, it appears, took a rain check this time.

Birds perched on trees are confused as they peck the apricots that look ripe after getting baked under a blazing sun, but are still hard and bitter inside.

Heavy downpours followed by a hot spell played havoc with the genetic disposition of plants, which are growing on the double, and budding in their infancy.

To the residents of Islamabad, however, nothing matters much.

They are as nonchalant about the comings and goings of weather as they are about comings and goings of VIPs that bring traffic to a standstill for long periods of time.

VIP traffic

On my way to Islamabad from Rawalpindi one evening, my taxi ran into a road block erected by the police on the main Airport Road.

The driver saw the barricade and turned left, back towards Rawalpindi to take the alternative route, without exchanging a word with the policemen blocking his way.

President General Pervez Musharraf
Gen Musharraf could be in any car, in any motorcade. Or he might've taken a helicopter while the motorcades shut the flow of traffic in various parts of the city.

"Why? What happened?" I asked the driver.

"Musharraf is on the road," he replied, without breaking the concentration with which he was picking his nose while holding the wheel with one hand.

There was no malice or exasperation in his tone. If anything, he seemed slightly annoyed with my question.

Like it's the most normal thing for a motorist to be made to leave a main artery and find a detour, or wait anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour, several times a week!

Having lived in Islamabad for a few months now, I see why the taxi driver found my question so na´ve.

Everyone in Islamabad knows that when President Pervez Musharraf moves, all else is brought to a halt.

All streets leading to the road he is travelling on are blocked.

Even the filling stations on the general's route have to suspend business as their entry and exit points remain barricaded until after the presidential motorcade has passed.

The more savvy residents of the capital city also know that there is more than one motorcade of identical, black, armour-plated limos hitting the road simultaneously.

Gen Musharraf could be in any car, in any motorcade. Or he might've taken a helicopter while the motorcades shut the flow of traffic in various parts of the city.

National duty

I don't have all the details of the general's security - if I did I wouldn't be writing about it - but even what's visible on the streets is awesome.

Dozens of cars, scores of body guards, hundreds of police on the road...all this to protect one man as he goes to work and comes back home every day!

The security arrangements for the president's movement are elaborate, and the attitude of the involved personnel imposing.

The inconvenience of a few thousand motorists - who may be getting late for a job interview, or taking a patient to hospital, or going to pick up a child from school - seems too petty to even mention, let alone complain about.

Occasionally though, one does hear complaints. But then every city has its share of wimps.

The more politically aware, who are in majority, thankfully, understand.

They are doing their national duty when they sit in their motionless cars, a safe 50 metres away from the road used by the president, or his drivers.

It's the only activity through which the world sees Pakistanis as law-abiding citizens, and Gen Musharraf as the man in full control of things, at least in his own capital.

If not for this remarkable show of power and control on the part of security agencies, and discipline (meaning 'cheerful obedience' in military parlance) on the part of the civilians, the world might not be able to make a distinction between Islamabad and Kabul.

Or if they did, it'd be that the Taleban are still trying to penetrate Kabul, while in Islamabad their brothers and sisters are already well settled in.

Capital vigilantes

The brothers are intimidating women drivers, harassing the music and video shops owners, openly threatening the use of suicide bombings, and brandishing their weapons in public.

Jamia Hafsa students in Islamabad
The 'brothers and sisters' are part of the 'Red Mosque' institutions

The sisters have taken over a public library by force and groups of baton-wielding veiled women have been guarding the building for more than two months.

Lately, in a joint operation, the brothers and sisters raided a home and took an elderly woman, her daughter, daughter-in-law, and an infant grandchild hostage.

The captives were blamed for running a bawdy house.

Police arrested two sisters, only to release them next day in exchange for two policemen and their vehicles captured by the brothers in retaliation.

The hostage family was left to secure its own release two days later.

This was done by reading out a statement of admission of guilt at a media conference organised by their captors.

After the admission, the captors promised to continue taking the law into their own hands.

The government had initiated action against mosques and seminaries built on encroached land at the start of this year.

In a daring attempt it even demolished two such structures.

That was until the brothers and sisters intervened.

One of the demolished structures is now being reconstructed by the same government, at the same plot, earlier deemed illegally occupied.

Action on other 'illegal mosques' has been suspended.

All this is evidence enough that the government of Gen Musharraf respects the population's right to freedom of action and speech.

But its detractors turn the argument on its tail to prove that the government is too weak to impose its writ in the capital, never mind Balochistan, the tribal areas, and the rest of the country.

Understanding citizens

Let me assure one and all, the government is not weak.

It lets the armed and the angry madrassa students blow off some steam, but routinely makes a spectacle of the regular, working people commuting to work to show who is really in charge.

The writ of the government remains firmly established in Islamabad. At least among the law-abiding folk.

The doubter should get in a queue waiting for the presidential motorcade to pass.

The stranded commuters will be sweating and straining, but you won't catch them bickering.

Instead, they'll sincerely be hoping and praying that Gen Musharraf passes by quickly, and without incident, so they can also get on with their lives.




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