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In Pakistan, protesting goes a cappella

As things get tougher for their president, Pakistanis use a catchy pop tune to express their anger.

After the violent standoff at the Red Mosque in Islamabad concluded this week, the chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, took another road trip through Punjab Province, Pakistan's heartland. As always, it was like a raucous party thrown for a rock star.

Flags waving and fists in the air, thousands stretched along the road waiting to shower Mr. Chaudhry with rose petals or seek his autograph. And all the while, from car speakers, a familiar tune pounded the air and sent thousands of shoulders bopping:

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"You're always running off to Washington/ Running off to butter up Bush/ Falling to his feet and groveling/ And turning around and threatening the weak/ Fight the real oppressor, why don't you?/ Uncle, lose the uniform, why don't you?/ Take your pension and leave, why don't you?"

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Since Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf attempted to sack Chaudhry on March 9, the chief justice has emerged as something of a street hero for those who champion democracy. But if Chaudhry, with his dour expressions and reticent air, is the unlikely hero of a movement against Musharraf's military rule, he now has his own anthem.

"Chacha Wardi Laonda Kyon Nahee?" – "Uncle, Lose Your Uniform, Why Don't You" – follows Chaudhry whereever he goes across the country. It's a caustic, witty number evoking the battle Chaudhry and a mixed bag of opposition members – Islamists, lawyers, journalists, socialists, and nationalists – are now waging.

And on some level, the jingle is testament to Pakistan's pluck. In a country that has survived a civil war and seen four military dictators come and go, Pakistanis haven't lost their sense of humor this time around. Not that the worsening crisis isn't being taken seriously, but humor has become one of the most effective tools for expressing dissent in an atmosphere where the media is otherwise under fire.

"There's no law on ridiculing [the government] through cultural references," says Adnan Rehmat, country director of Internews Pakistan, a media watchdog group. "The government will come out more caricatured if they crack down on satire."

The eight-year rule of General Musharraf has never felt shakier. Ever since Chaudhry's dismissal, tensions have only escalated. The bloody confrontation last week between police forces and radical Islamic students in the heart of the capital, Islamabad, has underscored for many that Musharraf is unable to effectively manage the host of crises now engulfing him. How could the regime allow extremists to mobilize in the capital for months, before switching gears to all-out confrontation with them, many newspaper editorials have wondered aloud.

"It's a contemporary folk song," explains Aitzaz Ahsan, Chaudhry's chief lawyer in the ongoing Supreme Court trial challenging the chief justice's dismissal. "And contemporary folk songs, like country music, mirror the deep-felt feeling of the people."

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Among the most widely popular forms of satire is Chaudhry's anthem. A reflection of the movement it inspires, it draws on various elements and layers of Pakistani society. Sung a cappella in Punjabi, it was recorded by religious students in the style of a Punjabi folk song, but its tongue-in-cheek refrains are popular from Karachi to Islamabad, whether its listeners are religious or speak Punjabi or not.

That's because the song, and the half-dozen other politically charged hits on bootlegged CDs, use colloquial puns to broadcast what has been on people's minds for months: the breakdown in the rule of law, price hikes, Musharraf's undermining of the Constitution, and his pandering to the West.

"People are very frustrated and sometimes they feel they have no way to express it," says Shahid Shamsie, the spokesperson for the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or the United Action Front, a coalition of religious parties. "Even though it is light, a song like this is a public expression of the hate that people feel right now."

The song is only one element of a flowering of Pakistan's pop culture during these tense times. Indeed, new media is helping to render critiques of the government more powerful and more sophisticated than ever before. Some five years ago the common Pakistani had a handful of TV stations to choose between – all state owned. Today there are over 40 private channels beaming news and entertainment from within Pakistan.

In barbershops and restaurants, Pakistanis are laughing aloud to The 4-Man Show, a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update-style satire that runs on Aaj Television, one of the country's most popular private channels. For the cast, who impersonate to hilarious effect the likenesses of Musharraf and his inner circle, nothing is sacred – not even the Red Mosque.

"I got a call from Ghazi Abdul Rashid after we ran a segment on the mosque," says Murtaza Chaudary, who writes and hosts the show. The episode, which aired last month, poked fun at the cleric's antivice campaign, suggesting that it was because of unavailability of his favorite titles at video stores. "He really enjoyed it. I was surprised to hear it, but he thought it was a creative way of getting at the issue."

Last week after a battle broke out between security forces and the "Red Mosque Brigade," the head imam of the mosque was arrested as he tried to escape dressed as a woman in a burqa. The ridiculous getaway was perfect fodder for Chaudary and his team, and they quickly went to work recording some new sketches, but decided to pull them at the last moment. "When reports of deaths started coming in, we realized that people weren't exactly joyous at the moment," says Mr. Chaudary. "We thought it would be irresponsible to air this right now."

Try as it might, the government can't regulate all the critiques streaming in digital bits across Pakistan: The viral nature of new technologies like cellphones, whose numbers have exploded in Pakistan in recent years, allow instant distribution of underground media like Chaudhry's anthem and a bevy of satirical texts poking fun at the regime.

This one started making the rounds a few weeks ago: "Musharraf arrested, assemblies dissolved, emergency declared… If any of this happens, let me know."