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Pakistan: Mosque Assault Could Be Problematic For Musharraf

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf (fiile photo) (epa) July 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani security forces stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad today in an attempt to end a weeklong standoff that challenged President Pervez Musharraf's authority. RFE/RL correspondent Gulnoza Saidazimova spoke to Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow of the Asia Program at the London-based Chatham House, to take a closer look.

RFE/RL: In your opinion, how has the government of President Pervez Musharraf handled the situation around the Red Mosque so far?

Farzana Shaikh: The handling of the government with regard to the Red Mosque crisis can be described broadly, I would say, as quite incoherent and indecisive until this morning when it seems to have decided to that all options had run out. But I think it is important to emphasize here that had the government handled the situation more decisively earlier, we would have been spared the enormous loss of life and the huge, devastating consequences of its actions.

"Islamabad, once pretty much a fortified capital, is likely to become as vulnerable to the kind of pressure that other provinces like Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province have witnessed in recent months and years."

RFE/RL: What do you think will be the implications of this crisis for Pervez Musharraf and his government?

Shaikh: In the short term President Musharraf probably expects that his decision to storm the mosque and take the decisive action against the militants will win him a reprieve in Western capitals and will buttress his positions as the bastion against Islamic extremism in Pakistan and, of course, a reliable ally in the war on terror.

Shaikh: But having said that there are dangers that have now been unleashed; not least, of course, the fear that there will be a spin-off from events in Islamabad which will affect the rest of the country -- a spin-off which could be violent -- involving suicide bombers. President Musharraf is likely to continue to remain under pressure from opposition political parties who seem now to have gained some momentum and, of course, pressure from the pro-democracy movement.

RFE/RL: Are you saying Pervez Musharraf appears both stronger and weaker after this crisis?

Shaikh: Yes, I would say that. Yes, I see his decision to storm the mosque paradoxically as the last and desperate measure taken by a weak man, a man who has been seriously weakened by repeated challenges to his political authority and his legitimacy.

RFE/RL: Obviously Musharraf has faced many crises during his presidency. But is the Red Mosque crisis the most serious one as it is happening right under his nose in Islamabad?

Shaikh: Yes, I think it is a very good question. I think it is too early to tell but what I think can be established now with some degree of certainty is that the protection that was once enjoyed by those ensconced in Islamabad is a protection that has now crumbled. And Islamabad, once pretty much a fortified capital, is likely to become as vulnerable to the kind of pressure that other provinces like Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province have witnessed in recent months and years.

RFE/RL: So it appears Musharraf's control of the country has been seriously challenged. What can you say about the support he enjoys in Islamabad versus the provinces?

Shaikh: Certainly, his political authority and his legitimacy are under increasing challenge. I think we will just have to wait and see whether or not he is able to recover some of his support. I think it is important here to mention that the English-language press in particular has been behind Musharraf's policies with regard to curbing and controlling militant activity. Although this very same English-language press is opposed to military dictatorship, it has supported President Musharraf against the militants. In fact, in recent weeks we have seen in opinion polls Musharraf doing rather well, which suggests that he does enjoy some degree of backing and support for his actions. So, this support is divided: it is likely to be concentrated much more heavily in the provinces of the Punjab and Sind, and is much less likely in more conservative provinces [such as] the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan.