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Musharraf throws dice in bid to hold power

Musharraf throws dice in bid to hold powerWhen tanks strolled into the Pakistani capital Islamabad to take on the radical Red Mosque clerics, many residents sighed with relief. The clerics had been brutally imposing Taliban-style social edicts on them for months. But as coverage of the spectacular news story dominated the domestic and international media, suspicions arose. It seemed all too convenient for Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf to divert attention from his falling stature as a key ally in the US-led war against terror.

In January this year it was clear that female students from the adjoining Jamia Hafsa seminary broke the law by occupying the public children’s library next door. It was a protest against the government’s demolition of illegal mosques in the capital city. One of the elder students, who left the seminary on the third day of the siege, 23-year-old Ayesha Yousaf, said that the situation was still very much under control then.

This soon changed. The seminary saw a series of government negotiators arrive, from federal ministers to prominent religious scholars. Law enforcement was out of sight. Emboldened by the government’s laid back approach, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, vice-president of Jamia Hafsa and his elder brother Abdul Aziz Ghazi, head of the Red Mosque, demanded enforcement of strict sharia law.

Vice patrol squads, consisting of armed male and female students, threatened video and music store shopkeepers, and kidnapped policemen and alleged brothel owners and prostitutes. The elder Ghazi brother claimed to have 100 suicide bombers up and ready to respond if an operation was carried out against them. Intelligence reports stated that militants had flocked towards the mosque and seminaries.

The breaking point was the kidnapping of six Chinese women accused of being prostitutes. China has been a great contributor to Pakistan's infrastructure expansion and the two countries enjoy a strong military cooperation. China serves as a counterweight to Pakistan’s arch rival India. Pakistan apologised for the kidnapping, but China asked for better protection of its resident workers.

A week later, on Tuesday 3 July, security forces clashed with the militants of the Red Mosque. Both sides claimed to be retaliating. The next day the area was sealed, Black Hawk helicopters scanned the area and armed military forces with gas masks were heard firing througout the day. The seminary for boys, Jamia Faridia, had been captured and the outer wall of Jamia Hafsa blown up. At least 20 people died.

Musharraf throws dice in bid to hold powerThe timing of the operation provoked suspicion. Why did the government not act when the library occupation began? Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc, suggested in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn that the government could have cut off gas and electricity to the mosque, seminaries and library. The government could also have sealed the premises to prevent militants from flocking towards the mosque.

Musharraf, however, chose to appease the religious right. The general has relied on religious parties since he staged a bloodless coup in 1998. He ruled out seeking the support of the two most popular parties, both of whose leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, are currently in exile. There are also rumours that the situation has been allowed to fester to divert attention from the suspension of the chief justice in March.

Musharraf tried to sack the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, on vague charges of corruption. The chief justice had increasingly become a nuisance to the regime. He ordered the freeing of those arrested by Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, the MI. With elections due at the end of the year Musharraf feared Chaudhry’s resistance to his re-election.

The suspension sparked an unprecedented anti-Musharraf movement lead by the secular lawyers of Pakistan. Chaudhry drew huge crowds at speeches throughout the country. On one occasion a pro-Musharraf mob fired on those rallying against the government. Nearly 50 people, many of them opposition workers, were killed on camera. As a result, the government decided to ban live broadcasts of the chief justice's rallies. But the damage was done.

Western officials secretly started to deliberate on Pakistan’s political landscape after Musharraf’s autocracy. A deal between the president and one of the exiled opposition leaders, Benazir Bhutto, has been the subject of much speculation. Musharraf’s sincerity in the US-led war against terror was already subject to suspicion amongst western officials. The Talibanisation of Pakistan’s border area with Afghanistan is increasing. The decay of Musharraf’s power and credibility continues.

The operation against the radical clerics, however, has turned the tide for Musharraf, at least in western eyes. He has received messages of support from western allies. But in the eyes of the common Pakistanis the president has lost credibility, with no hope of its return. His continued tenure is in the balance. Musharraf is caught between his support from the west, the army and Pakistan’s elite on one hand, and the strength of the anti-Musharraf drive amongst the extremists and the secular masses on the other hand.



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