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    South Asia
     Feb 22, 2006
Musharraf losing his grip
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Low-profile government-sponsored rallies to condemn publication of cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed have swiftly escalated into a campaign directed against Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.

In this respect, the Shah-i-Mustafa (in respect of the Prophet Mohammed) rallies have already turned into a nascent Tehrik-i-

Nizam-i-Mustafa movement - that is, to enforce Prophet Mohammed's way of life, or sharia law, on to society.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the six-party opposition religious grouping the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), who was briefly detained on the weekend, has set a deadline of March 23 to depose Musharraf, but there are clear signals that within a matter of weeks the military regime could have further lost some of its grip on power.

The administration has already in effect been sidelined in the tribal areas of North West Frontier Province, where in South and North Waziristan a Taliban-led administration is in place and the Pakistani security forces cannot move beyond their district headquarters of Wana and Miranshah.

Similarly, Balochistan province has turned into a quagmire, with the armed forces having lost their iron grip to insurgents, who are now calling the shots. Almost daily, the fierce resistance blows up gas pipelines and electricity lines in the resource-rich region, and there is little the Pakistani army can do. Last week, three Chinese engineers and their Pakistani driver were gunned down in Balochistan. The Chinese are helping build the important warm-water Gwadar port.

In such a situation, the country's largest province, Punjab, has been the only base from which the establishment has been able to maneuver freely. Now even this is under threat.

Across the province, whether in small districts such as Chiniot or the headquarters of the armed forces, Rawalpindi, or the national capital, Islamabad, the masses have taken to the streets to vent their displeasure with the state.

On the political surface
It is an open secret that the government encouraged and sponsored rallies ostensibly against the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The aim was to send a message to the West of the dangers of extremism in Pakistan, and that it could only be contained by the military dictatorship.

This scheme has badly backfired, which the government was quick to realize. After a few rallies in Punjab, for example, the administration imposed the so-called Section 144 across the province and in the federal capital, under which all public gatherings were banned. A large rally in Islamabad on Sunday, however, defied the ban, even in the face of the military, paramilitary and police. Tear-gassings, shootings with rubber bullets and baton charges followed, with wide-scale arrests.

In an unprecedented reaction, when the police arrested hundreds of workers at a rally, private citizens of Islamabad, who are mostly employed in the public sector, took to the streets and pelted the police with stones. Ultimately, the administration backed down and allowed the rally to continue.

Among those arrested were many top leaders, including the secretary general of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Syed Munawar Hasan. Qazi Hussain Ahmed was also arrested, at his residence in Mansoor, Lahore, but such was the reaction that he was set free after just one day in detention.

The extent of the popular demonstrations has led the most organized and most powerful member of the MMA, the Jamaat-i-Islami Pakistan, to harness this people's power into an anti-Musharraf movement. The only obstacle is the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the chief of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam, a powerful segment of the MMA, who is not ready to launch such a campaign.

However, inner circles of the MMA tell Asia Times Online that whether or not Rehman supports the movement is not critical, as it is the masses that are driving the campaign.

Behind the political scenes
In addition to the religious-political parties, the country's hardcore religious segment has embraced the call for Tehrik-i-Nizam-i-Mustafa, and by implication the ouster of Musharraf. This includes the madrassas (seminaries) and calls from the mosques.

On Friday, after a call by Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid, Islamabad, about 5,000 people pledged their willingness (bait) to sacrifice their lives for the cause of jihad against the pro-US Musharraf government. Similar pledges were made in other mosques in Islamabad, and in Rawalpindi and Lahore.

Maulana Abdul Aziz and Ghazi Abdul Rasheed are sons of the slain Maulana Abdullah. The government has wanted on numerous occasions to arrest the brothers for their fiery remarks, but has never done so as they command great respect not only in the civilian population, but also in the army. Many top officers visit them in their modest houses near Lal Masjid, even though the Ministry of the Interior has branded them wanted criminals.

For the first time, white flags on which the Kalma (There is no God but the one God. Mohammed is the messenger of God) was inscribed in black appeared in sizable numbers at demonstrations. These special flags recall those used by the Prophet Mohammed 1,400 years ago.

Historical parallels
The current situation parallels the tumultuous times of 1977 when the Pakistan National Alliance, in which left- and right-wing parties were grouped, launched a Tehrik-i-Nizam-i-Mustafa that paved the way for the an army coup in which General Zia ul-Haq removed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and imposed martial law.

A bureaucrat who retired after reaching the senior position of secretary to the government of Pakistan recalled that anti-traditionalism had reached a serious level in the 1970s. Alcohol had become a part of the social culture and social climbers prevailed in the power corridors. A leading US-based magazine ran a cover story titled "Pakistan: A country ruled by pimps and prostitutes".

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the bureaucrat said, "In fact, Tehrik-i-Nizam-i-Mustafa was a mass rebellion against the establishment when it tried to change social norms."

The reasons for the dissatisfaction with Musharraf might be different - chief among them is his pro-US position in the "war on terror" - but powerful mosques, jihadis, religious parties and opposition parties have added their weight to the movement. Musharraf is currently on a state visit to China.

On Friday, the opposition parties called for countrywide demonstrations, and on Sunday they called for a rally in Lahore, even though protests have been banned there.

More protests have been scheduled for next month. These could coincide with a visit by US President George W Bush, although no dates have been announced.

The situation is fast coming to a head.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

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Mixed motives stoke Pakistan's flames (Feb 17, '06)

The Taliban's bloody foothold in Pakistan (Feb 8, '06)

US turns against Musharraf
(Jan 12, '06)


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