`People are just shocked'

Ex-prime minister's death stuns critics and supporters alike

Local reaction

Bhutto Assassinated

December 28, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

To Javaid Manzoor, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was more than the dynamic populist he believed was capable of propelling Pakistan toward true democracy. She was also a friend.

When Manzoor's mother died in October, Bhutto visited her friend's Potomac home to offer condolences, making it her first stop upon arriving in Washington for a busy political trip.

Manzoor, who had worked closely with Bhutto as president of the Washington chapter of her Pakistan People's Party, was stunned and distraught yesterday to learn of his hero's assassination.

"When my mom passed away, Benazir came right from the airport straight to my house. That showed she cared for her people." said Manzoor, who said by midday yesterday, he had fielded more than 50 phone calls from sobbing Bhutto supporters. "She was a very dynamic, very charismatic, very eloquent lady. And she has always been very kind."

Bhutto's killing in a combined shooting and bombing attack at a political rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, astonished Pakistani-Americans of all political stripes -from Bhutto's most loyal defenders to those who viewed the twice-elected, twice-expelled leader as an opportunist. They agreed her death is a blow to the nation's struggling democracy, throwing the political process into chaos.

"People are just shocked," Manzoor said. "They cannot even talk."

"This kind of heinous act is definitely against the stability of my country," said Dr. Saba Siddiqi, an internist from Lutherville, who learned of Bhutto's death listening to the radio while driving back to Maryland from a family vacation to Disney World. "This is very saddening because this is just criminal. This is just wrong."

As a college student in Karachi, Siddiqi was inspired by Bhutto, then a young politician taking over the progressive mantle of her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged in 1979. Siddiqi viewed the young Bhutto as a role model and a gifted orator who spoke boldly about democracy. She became the first female leader of a modern Muslim nation in 1988 and was elected again in 1993.

"She was a great lady," Siddiqi said. "But I lost faith in her."

Bhutto faced political corruption charges during her terms in office, souring many supporters. Siddiqi, who has lived in the U.S. for 25 years, still follows Pakistani politics closely, but is exasperated by the country's leaders.

"Now, I am totally lost," she said. "In this Pakistan, we don't have any leaders to look up to. Either there is corruption on one side or extremism on the other side."

When she talks to her father in Karachi, his take on the nation's politics is equally glum.

"He says people are totally lethargic to the democratic process," Siddiqi said.

But some were encouraged by Bhutto's return to Pakistan in October, after a self-imposed exile in Dubai since 1998. Bhutto held demonstrations criticizing her rival, President Pervez Musharraf, and she emerged as a leading contender for prime minister in elections scheduled in two weeks.

Yet, her return was fraught with controversy. During a homecoming rally Oct. 18, Bhutto survived a bombing that killed 140 people.

Saying Islamic extremism was a growing national threat, Musharraf declared a state of emergency last month, a move that suspended the Pakistani constitution and silenced the press. He also placed Bhutto under house arrest. Under pressure, Musharraf lifted the emergency decree Dec. 15.

Irfan Malik, an engineer from Ellicott City, who objected to Musharraf's state of emergency, said he is fearful that violence will follow Bhutto's death.

"People are dying every day in such attacks, which is a serious security concern," said Malik, who left Pakistan for the United States 22 years ago. "The U.S. administration has not really taken full charge. They are still supporting the present government, which is not popular, instead of supporting the masses."

Naveeda Khan, an assistant professor of anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University, said Bhutto's death is evidence of increasing extremism but could also be a turning point in the violence. "People in Pakistan feel their everyday lives are under a tremendous amount of pressure," she said. "Bhutto's death, the fact that people are responding with such evident shock and dismay can actually be seen as good thing - that outrage could make change happen."

Manzoor, a veterinarian who was born in Lahore, said there are many unanswered political questions for Pakistan.

"Musharraf stays in power for much longer, and now there is no legitimacy to the election," he said. "No one knows what the other parties are going to do. Any which way you look at it, it is horrifying. This is a tragic loss and the repercussions will be dire."

Anwar Hasan, an engineer from Clarksville, said he has become resigned to the turmoil in Pakistan.

"It's just disappointing," said Hasan, who was born in Karachi. "This country has been around for 60 years and we have not been able to go through the basics of democracy and a strong political system. Every couple of years, we have a crisis that takes you back instead of forward."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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