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Pakistan: Musharraf's Position Precarious After Red Mosque Storming

President Pervez Musharraf in his military uniform (CTK) WASHINGTON, July 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf angered many Pakistanis four months ago by ordering the removal of a Supreme Court justice on charges of corruption. On July 10, Musharraf again risked angering conservative Muslims by ordering troops to storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad after a long standoff with religious radicals. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully spoke about Musharraf's future with Alexander Lennon -->,com_csis_experts/task,view/id,112/ , a specialist in South Asian affairs at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

RFE/RL: Before the attacks of September 11, 2001, Musharraf reportedly had good relations with conservative Muslim groups in Pakistan. Since then and following his alliance with the United States, those relations have been strained. How will his decision to storm the Red Mosque affect those ties?

Alexander Lennon: My understanding is that the religious group that seized the mosque in the first place is not one that had traditionally gotten a lot of popular support before this event. So in the larger religious community, it may mean that that group is isolated. The question is whether the crackdown provokes more sympathy for that group that didn't previously exist.

There's a series of elections that are coming up this fall that set the stage for some sort of catalytic event that may lead to a change in the system within Pakistan.

It's entirely possible that [Musharraf's] reputation will be harmed by cracking down on [the religious group], that the rest of the religious groups will collectively have more sympathy for the group that seized the mosque in the first place. But its core principles, I think, were not necessarily widely supported by Pakistan more broadly. It just depends on whether the [government's] reaction is taken to be excessive or whether that isolation of the religious group remains after the crackdown.

RFE/RL: To govern effectively, Pakistan's leaders have had to rely on a balance of some support of the country's middle class and its conservative Muslims. How has Musharraf managed that balance since he seized power in 1999?

Lennon: I think it's always been the case before [September 11, 2001], and to some extent after, that Musharraf has had to deal with these groups and has had to try to fend off the risk of the "Talibanization," so to speak, of Pakistan itself. And for that he has used a mix of negotiating tactics, crackdown tactics, and others to try and parse those groups away from each other, not cause an alliance against his government. What changed after September 11 was the nature of his relationship with the United States and the demands that the United States placed on cracking down on those forces more frequently and on using negotiations less frequently. He hasn't always abided by the U.S. preferences. There are some cases where he has reached out to negotiating agreements with the warlords in various tribal areas in Pakistan, which the United States has not supported. But he has certainly used those tactics less frequently because U.S. pressure has been placed on him to crack down on those groups. So the balance of his willingness to use negotiation as opposed to crackdowns has changed since September 11, but he's always used some form of a mix of the two sets of tactics -- and anything [else] he can manage -- in order to fend off the risk of Talibanization, from his perspective, of Pakistan.

RFE/RL: Even before the storming of the Red Mosque, Musharraf was reported to be losing support. Does this mean he's starting to face opposition from conservative Muslims or Pakistan's middle class?

Lennon: I think it means across the board, but certainly including the middle-class elites, because of the sense that Pakistan is not democratizing at all, principally because of those two symbolic events: that he's not willing to give up his position as the commander in chief while he's running the country and because of the firing of the Supreme Court justice on alleged causes of corruption. That has led to an across-the-board drop in his popularity, but that certainly includes the middle class in Pakistan.

RFE/RL: You sound as if you expect Musharraf won't last much longer as Pakistan's president.

Lennon: [Musharraf] is in a fragile state in his position in Pakistan right now, and people are wondering when the other shoe is going to drop and there's going to be some broader -- not necessarily popular uprising, but it's more likely there'd be some sort of military crackdown to try and stabilize the government before that sort of popular uprising happens.

RFE/RL: Then are you saying Musharraf will be out by, say, the end of the year? Even sooner?

Lennon: I think it's too early to tell. I mean, I think there was a broad set of concerns before the seizing of the mosque about his ability to democratize the country and maintain support. I think there is a sense that his time is limited, and the question is whether what follows him is a peaceful and orderly transition or whether it's something that's more violent. There's a series of elections that are coming up this fall that set the stage for some sort of catalytic event that may lead to a change in the system within Pakistan.

RFE/RL: One objection to Musharraf is that he insists on keeping his general's rank. Many Pakistanis say his leadership would be far more acceptable if he resigned his military commission and became a civilian president. Why doesn't he do that if it would mean a wider acceptance of his presidency?

Lennon: There's no question that the path to power in Pakistan runs through the military. And for people that worry about some sort of radical Islamist uprising in Pakistan, I think it's much more likely that you'd have a military coup or a preventive crackdown to make sure that that didn't happen well before you had that sort of uprising. I don't think it's the case that the seizing of the mosque by the radical group is a precursor to a wider Islamist revolution within the country. I think it's an isolated group. So it's entirely possible that he knows that the path to power in Pakistan rests with the military, and so he's going to cling to that role as the commander in chief of the military in order to make sure he holds the levers of power in Pakistan.

Who Speaks For Islam?

Who Speaks For Islam?

Young Muslims at a movie theater in Tehran (AFP file photo)

CROSS-CULTURAL DIALOGUE: On June 13, RFE/RL hosted a roundtable discussion entitled "Who Speaks For Islam?" The event was hosted by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes and featured scholars of Islam from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 2 hours and 15 minutes):
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