Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Summer of Discontent

After years of being cowed by the authorities, Afghans are increasingly expressing their grievances in public.
By Rahim Gul

Long held silent by oppressive governments, Afghans are beginning to show their dissatisfaction on the streets.


Demonstrations of one sort or another have taken place regularly in Kabul over the past two months: from political groups protesting border incursions by Pakistani soldiers to disabled people demanding more benefits.


Though the crowds are still small, usually less than 300 people, the actions – many of which appear to be organised by political factions – are novel enough to draw packs of bystanders, some of whom join in on a whim.


The demonstrations generally have been peaceful, and police are learning to control participants without resorting to violence.


However, in the latest round of rallies last week, a crowd outside the Pakistani embassy threw stones, shattering windows and burning furniture, forcing it to close until further notice. Police beat the demonstrators back with nightsticks.


That demonstration was one of several in Kabul against Pakistan, spurred by reports of Pakistani troop incursions into eastern Afghanistan.


In a separate, peaceful protest, at Pashtunistan Square, representatives of the Afghan National Party called for an end to extremism and interference by Pakistan. Party chief Anwarul Haq Ahadi spoke of the advantages of Afghanistan’s new freedoms and warned Pakistan that “even though Afghans have fought each other, against invaders they are united”.


And Mohaqiq Zada, a spokesman of the National Movement, a breakaway faction from the dominant Jamiat-e-Islami party, called Pakistan “a cowardly and tricky neighbour”.


Most rallies are mild compared to the landmark protests last November by Kabul University students. Over two days, hundreds of them marched to demonstrate against conditions at the campus, prompted when the canteen ran out of food at the end of a fasting day during Ramadan. Police, many of them former guerilla soldiers, responded to the protesters’ stone-throwing by firing at them, killing at least five and wounding dozens.


Now police control the crowds without guns or even tear gas, and demonstrators confine themselves to shouting and waving banners calling for “death to” the enemy of the moment.


Interior ministry officials put the restrained approach to the protesters down to reforms at the new police academy.


“Our behavior with the demonstrators is legal and softer than it was - in the past our police weren’t professional and they didn’t know about the rights of demonstrators,” said General Mohammad Akbar Ahmadzai, head of the planning and rules department. “Our new 600-man battalion is professional and well-trained.”


The first pro-democracy rally in Kabul was in 1952, according to Nasrine Abu Bakre Gross, a teacher of social science at Kabul University. One of the leaders of that demonstration was her father, Dr Mohammed Abu Bakre; he and the other 40 or 50 participants in the action were imprisoned and tortured, she said.


Protests became common in Kabul during the “decade of democracy” - from approval of the 1964 reformist constitution to Daod Khan’s overthrow of the king, Zahir Shah, in 1973. In 1969, anti-government student demonstrations were so extreme that they caused the university to be closed for a year, recalled Nasrullah Stanigzai, assistant professor of Kabul University’s political science faculty.


Rallies were uncommon during the 23 years of war in Afghanistan, when nearly any public expression of dissatisfaction was quickly quashed at gunpoint. Perhaps the most famous martyred demonstrator was a young woman named Nahid, who was shot down during a 1981 rally against the Soviet invasion after she bared her breasts and shouted, “These breasts are for Afghans, not for Russians!”


During the Taleban regime, demonstrations were banned - until the US air strikes in 2001, when the radical Islamic government rallied Afghans to protest against America.


From an historic perspective, the recent surge in protests is a hopeful sign, observers say.“[They have] different goals, but people can demand their rights through [them],” said Ahmad Nadir Naderi, a member of the Human Rights Commission. “Such freedom is the right of all people.”


In the first year of the transitional government, only a couple demonstrations were held, but at the beginning of May, Afghans took to the streets in waves. Most were held in the capital, but there were also a few in the eastern border city of Jalalabad and in Mazar-e-Sharif to the north. Their causes have been wide-ranging:


The recent unrest began on May 6, about 200 people demonstrated to demand their unpaid salaries and changes in hiring practices at government ministries. Some chanted anti-western slogans.


The following week, a crowd of about 300 protested a speech of President Hamid Karzai in which he defended a handful of early Taleban leaders.


Also in May, scores of students rallied against the closure of the military college and hundreds of factory workers blocked a major road in a protest over the lack of raw materials, transportation and salaries. They continued their action for about a week.


On July 3, demonstrators gathered outside the ministry of information and culture, demanding that a newspaper columnist, Mir Hussain Mehdawi, who questioned the role of Islam in a democracy, be put on trial for blasphemy, and that minister Makhdum Rahin and deputy minister Hamid Mubarez be fired because they had defended him.


Over the past six months, disabled people have held a handful of actions, beginning with a spontaneous protest at a government-sponsored event in which they demanded more support. They have vowed to continue regularly until their needs are answered.


Most protests, small as they are, bring no results. But demonstrators often say they are glad that at least they have the freedom to voice their complaints.


Hafizullah Gardesh, Rahim Gul Sarwan and Wahidullah Amani are independent journalists in Kabul.


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