Security is tight, fireworks are banned and public gatherings kept to a minimum.
|Musharraf is the fourth military ruler, and is set to contest for another term [GALLO/GETTY]|
Pakistan has been under military rule for half of its 60-year existence since partition from India in 1947.
A civilian government ruled the country for 10 years after independence; thereafter Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia ul-Haq, all army chiefs, enforced military rule at various points in its short history.
Ayub Khan was removed by a nationwide insurrection that lasted for three months and Zia ul-Haq died in a plane crash. Each of the army chiefs ruled Pakistan for 10 years, and going by this political calendar, General Pervez Musharraf still has two years left, having seized power in 1999.
As he experiments with the prospects of a power-sharing deal with Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister whom he deemed “corrupt”, Musharraf is besieged by a rising tide of discontent.
‘Doctrine of necessity’
In March this year, when Musharraf had suspended Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, chief justice of the supreme court, he said that he was implementing the “doctrine of necessity” to intervene in the judicial process.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Irfan Husain, columnist for Dawn newspaper, said that this statement signified the power of the military as the main ruling institution.
Husain said: “It [the army] is the only functioning institution. Everything else is rotting away, and social infrastructure is all but dead.
“It needs to take a less forceful role in Pakistani society.”
The decision to dismiss Chaudhry triggered a wave of protest, and took the form of a civil-society movement that was not religiously motivated – a contrast to a common picture of religious upheaval that has come to define Pakistani politics in recent years.
The lawyers who marched on the streets of Islamabad did so to insist on a separation of constitutional powers, by holding on to a democratic framework of rule – a policy Musharraf had promised when he came to power.
However, as previous military leaders ruled by decree, democratic rule was never fully embraced. Rather, a tug and pull between civilian and army governments since the country became the norm.
The siege at the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) occurred at around the same time as Chaudhry’s dismissal, and was again to highlight the government’s attempt to assert the “doctrine of necessity”.
“The Red Mosque [siege] was unnecessary. The army should have just cut the water, electricity and gas supplies to the mosque.”
Irfan Husain, columnist for Dawn newspaper
Although the death toll remains unclear, hundreds of students were said to be killed inside the madrassa when they were caught in a deadly confrontation with the army.
Musharraf said at the time that it was in the country’s “best interests to eradicate extremist elements” in Pakistan.
However, opposition groups have questioned the army’s approach to end the siege.
Imran Khan, head of Tehreek-e-Insaaf (the Pakistani Justice Movement), told Al Jazeera that the confrontation had become politicised, at the expense of many lives.
He said: “As Musharraf faces his biggest crisis, he is desperate to prove his indispensability to the West in the war on terror.
“But this use of force is likely to produce unintended and dangerous consequences, as it has in Baluchistan, Waziristan and Bajaur.”
Husain, who covered the siege for Dawn, too said that other measures should have been taken to reduce the casualty figures.
“The Red Mosque [siege] was unnecessary. The army should have just cut the water, electricity and gas supplies to the mosque,” he said.
George Bush, US president, had signalled his support for the government when the siege ended, praising Musharraf as “a strong ally in the war against these extremists”.
But one week later, the National Intelligence Estimate, a US agency dealing in counter-terrorism, released a report critical of Musharraf’s handling of the growing resurgence of the Taliban in the North Western Frontier province (NWFP).
Recently The Washington Post reported that the paper was deliberately altered to pressure Musharraf into clamping down on fighters in the region.
|Madrassas have filled the vacuum created by
a lack of investment in education [EPA]
History tends to repeat itself in Pakistan: Musharraf is not the only military ruler supported by foreign governments.
Zia too was financed by the US – to help fight the Russian occupation of Afghanistan at the height of the Cold War.
The cost of this support is now a country among Asia’s poorest.
International support for army-backed governments has resulted in millions of dollars being invested in defence, while other parts of society have been neglected.
According to government figures, barely two per cent of Pakistan’s GDP is invested in education and social services. This has left an opening for madrassas not only catering for religious education, but for a whole range of social programmes that many families cannot afford.
Over many years, as many as 10,000 students had lived inside the Lal Masjid compound, many of whom were from the country’s tribal areas.
With criticism mounting and Musharraf’s approval rating slumping to 34 per cent, his lowest ever, according to recent polls, the complex political environment has led some to believe that judgment has been passed too quickly.
The Red Mosque episode is a case in point.
Ikram Sehgal, a defence analyst and former major in the army, told Al Jazeera that Musharraf had no other means to end the siege.
Sehgal said: “The army had no choice but to storm the mosque. The militants were gathering arms and they wanted to push their own extreme laws. They had no respect for the rule of law, which is why we had to crack down on them.”
The confrontation between the state and the fighters resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people all over the country in suicide attacks.
Abdul Aziz, brother of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, in the last interview he gave before his July 4 escape from the Red Mosque and arrest, said that an escalation in violence was conditional.
Aziz said: “The Taliban in the NWFP and tribal areas will launch a military campaign if our religious school comes under attack.”
Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, director of the Islamabad Policy Institute, says the US and its allies know very little about the internal politics in Pakistan, yet are intent on pushing their own foreign-policy agenda.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Cheema said: “The international community is ignorant about Pakistan. They have no idea about the difficulties Musharraf is facing in appeasing both Washington and the agitated tribal leaders. You are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t.
“I believe that Pakistan should withdraw itself as an ally in the war on terror, because it has not helped this country at all.”
The benefits that have accrued to the defence establishment are an altogether different story.
It is the richest it has ever been in history.
According to Ayesha Siddiqa, a former director of research at the Pakistan navy, the military’s business empire could be worth as much as $20bn.
Retired and serving officers run industrial conglomerates, manufacture everything from cement to corn flakes, and own about four million hectares of land.
The military’s penetration into society has accelerated under Musharraf, who has placed 1,200 officers in key positions in universities and training colleges.
Siddiqa told Al Jazeera that “the primary purpose of a trained military is war fighting. They are not designed for the corporate sector”.
“[The army’s business interests] feeds directly into the military’s political power. It’s an expression of their personal and organisational strength.”
This is set to make the return to civilian rule much harder, amid demands from Bhutto, as a condition in power sharing, that Musharraf remove his uniform.
A political rollercoaster has come to define Pakistan since its creation, as the vast gulf separating the poor from the rich, the educated from the uneducated, the contemporary achievers from those rooted in past circumstance was never bridged.
Clearly, for all its achievements during the 60 years since its creation, Pakistan is a nation in search of an identity beyond army rule.