September 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Islamists chanting slogans against President Pervez Musharraf rallied today outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad as judges continued to hear petitions challenging his right to run for reelection as president.
Lawyers, opposition parties, and conservative Islamists have promised to stage anti-Musharraf street protests across the country. They claim it is unconstitutional for Musharraf to seek reelection when parliament votes on the next president on October 6. That's because Musharraf has refused to resign from his post as army chief until after he wins reelection.
Analysts say the crisis leaves Musharraf in his weakest political position within Pakistan since he came to power through a military coup eight years ago.
Adding to the threats against Islamabad, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden September 20 issued an audio recording on the Internet in which he urges Pakistanis to rebel against Musharraf's government.
In the recording, bin Laden expresses anger about a crackdown against foreign Al-Qaeda fighters in the tribal regions of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. Bin Laden also criticizes a raid by Pakistani security forces on Islamabad's Red Mosque in July that killed radical cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi and many of his supporters.
Bin Laden labels Musharraf an "infidel" and calls for jihad -- or holy war -- claiming that even those who are forced to cooperate with Musharraf's government cannot be forgiven under Islamic law.
"So Pervez [Musharraf], his ministers, his soldiers and those who help him are all accomplices in the spilling of blood of those Muslims who have been killed," bin Laden says. "He who helps him knowingly and willingly is an infidel like him. And as for he who helps him knowingly and under compulsion, his compulsion isn't legally valid according to Islamic Shari'a law."
Raid 'Alienated Even Moderates'
The declaration of jihad against Musharraf's government by Al-Qaeda is not new. Al-Qaeda's no. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahri, had urged a holy war against Musharraf in the days immediately after the Red Mosque was raided by Pakistani troops.
Lahore-based political consultant Rizvi Hasan-Askari says the storming of the Red Mosque has provided Al-Qaeda with an opportunity to exploit feelings of anger among both moderate and hard-line Islamists in Pakistan.
"The Red Mosque incident has alienated the Islamic groups," he says. "Some are moderate Islamic groups. Some are hard-line and militant Islamic groups. All have been alienated from the government. So, in a way, the negative fallout for Musharraf is that, in the past; some of these Islamic groups and elements were still sympathetic toward him, but now, after the Red Mosque, almost all of them have turned against the government."
That situation has led some experts to predict that radical Islamists could stage an uprising against Musharraf's government.
Mark Schneider is the vice president of the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental think tank. He tells RFE/RL that Musharraf's legal battles with the Supreme Court and the dispute over his eligibility for reelection also contribute to political instability.
"Without any question, the independence of the Supreme Court in Pakistan has posed a major obstacle to Musharraf's and the Pakistan military's political plan -- to have him simply be reelected, to maintain his military role as chief of the army, and to maintain his presidency," he says. "And without any question, the current lawsuits pose a significant obstacle to Musharraf and the military's planning."
Schneider says the Supreme Court could decide that Musharraf must step down as the military chief in the case that he is reelected by parliament on October 6.
But he says the court also could decide that Musharraf is not an eligible candidate at all. That's because Pakistani law bans military officers from running for civilian political offices until at least two years after they retire from the military.
The law in Pakistan does allow for waivers to be issued that would allow Musharraf as military chief to run for reelection. But Schneider says the Supreme Court could decide that a waiver is not possible in the current circumstances.
"In that case, the question is what the Pakistan military does," he says. "Do they accept that? Do they declare a state of emergency? There have been a significant number of people around Musharraf who have urged him to declare a state of emergency. That would essentially reestablish military law, which he did when he first came into power in a military coup to take over the government."