Public opinion in Pakistan sits on knife's edge

Holy month of Ramadan could swing `undecideds' against support for U.S.

War On Terrorism

October 25, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - In a nation rocked by demonstrations, the one in the parking lot of the Best Western Hotel here Sunday night stood apart. Waving Pakistani flags and chanting "Long live Pakistan," men and women walked one by one across a bed of burning coals to show their support for Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

It was the first pro-government demonstration of its kind to counter the massive, often violent rallies protesting Pakistan's cooperation with the United States in its anti-terrorism campaign against Afghanistan.

Thirty people, including a 90-year-old retired army general and a 16-year-old high school student, walked across the 12-foot long strip of coals.

"Musharraf is in a very difficult situation, and he needs our support," said Moiz Hussain, a clinical hypnotist from Karachi who organized the event. "On one hand, there is a violent and emotionally charged group out on the streets. Against this, there is no effective spokesman for the government."

After nearly three weeks of bombing in Afghanistan, Musharraf will need more people like Hussain to help him survive what could be a long fight for his political career.

In the latest sign of mounting pressure at home, thousands of anti-American protesters descended this week on Jacobabad, a town in Sindh Province where Pakistan is allowing the United States to use an airbase.

A "million man" demonstration has been called for Saturday in Karachi, the largest call so far for protesters. And some analysts believe the support Musharraf enjoys might start eroding as the war leads to more civilian casualties and refugees.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Musharraf has been in a precarious position. He is trying to please the United States and its coalition in the war against terrorism but at home risks a huge backlash from vocal and violent militant anti-American groups.

Publicly, Musharraf has put his trust in what he has called the "silent majority," the large number of Pakistanis he said understand his dilemma and support his cooperation with the United States.

But with the holy month of Ramadan a few weeks away and no let-up in the bombing, many analysts question whether Musharraf can keep the lid on the opposition during a time when Afghan sympathies and protests could peak.

"Musharraf must be a worried man," said Najam Sethi, editor of the Lahore-based independent weekly newspaper, The Friday Times, and a well-known political commentator in Pakistan. "The silent majority is still sitting on the fence, still sitting on the sidelines. But at some point, their emotions will be frayed and they may jump in and protest. With the onset of Ramadan, Musharraf will be put to the test."

And it is a test Musharraf does not want to take.

During an appearance Monday on CNN's Larry King Live, Musharraf said he hoped "that this campaign comes to an end before the month of Ramadan, and one would hope for restraint during the month of Ramadan."

For the United States, however, such a delay would mean disrupting the military campaign. And once Ramadan is over in mid-December, winter in Afghanistan will have set in, making air and ground operations more difficult.

Ramadan - a lunar month of 29 or 30 days - is the month when the Prophet Mohammed first began receiving revelations of the Quran, Islam's holy book. During that time, Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex from sunrise to sunset and are supposed to be charitable toward others.

Observers fear that more people will protest during the month because of increased attendance at mosques, where religious emotions and sympathies for the Afghans will run high.

So far, the violent demonstrations against the U.S. attacks in Karachi, Islamabad and the border cities of Peshawar and Quetta have been largely confined to small radical religious parties or Afghan refugee communities. The Pakistan government has quelled much of the violence in recent weeks by showing a strong military presence in many of the country's major cities and by arresting hundreds of Islamic militants.

The military, however, shares the same sympathies as the Pakistani population, Sethi said. In the short term, the military is disciplined enough to crack down on the protests as it has been doing. Over the many months that the war might drag on, divisions could form within the army, making it more difficult to control unrest.

Added to the tension is the powder keg of Pakistani youth, who could turn against the government in greater numbers.

"We know that 60 to 65 percent of the Pakistani population is under the age of 25," Sethi said. "This is a demographic source of instability. In Pakistan history, when a popular movement succeeded against a standing government, students and younger people joined in the agitation."

Getting a true picture of Pakistani public opinion is not easy. One opinion poll released Oct. 15 by Gallup Pakistan, an affiliate of Gallup International, offered mixed and, in the eyes of some experts, questionable results.

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