Peshawar protests peacefully

Friday, the Muslim holy day, is also a day of testing for Pakistan's Musharraf.

Published October 13, 2001 11:38PM (EDT)

Two years to the day since he seized power, Gen. Pervez Musharraf faced -- and passed, for now -- the toughest test of his control over Pakistan.

The first Friday since the attacks on Afghanistan began was, as the Muslim day of prayer, bound to be a litmus test of the support for religious hard-liners among average Pakistanis. The religious groups and the government have been waging a war of words over who really speaks for the Pakistani majority.

Despite government support for the U.S., there is widespread anger in Pakistan over the strikes on Afghanistan. The protests on Friday were the Islamic parties' chance to show that they could get crowds onto the streets to challenge Musharraf's authority. Though protesters gathered in force here in Peshawar and filled mosques and streets, the day ended peacefully.

The Friday protests were only the latest move in an ongoing chess game between Musharraf and the Islamicists. The general's first move had been to eliminate the threat of dissent within the army by forcing out senior officers with Taliban sympathies, including Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmad, head of the ISI, Pakistan's powerful secret service. The ISI was instrumental in backing and arming the Taliban during the 1990s, and Mahmood was considered one of the most significant threats to Musharraf from within his own ranks.

Pakistan had already seen a week of unrest before the crucial holy day Friday. The most violent of the earlier protests were in and around the southern border city of Quetta. On Monday, the police lost control of the city center, shops were looted and cinemas destroyed; and on Tuesday, three people were killed by the security forces. In Peshawar, police fired tear gas at a mob, and Karachi also saw violent clashes between police and protesters.

Nonetheless, these protests were muted considering the vehemence of the Islamic groups' rhetoric prior to the attacks on Afghanistan -- calls for jihad against countries helping America, and declarations by tribal leaders in the area along the Afghan border that their small private armies would willingly fight the government.

At an emergency government meeting on Thursday, Musharraf warned protesters that any violence would call forth a harsh government response and Afghan refugees found taking part in demonstrations would be deported. He angered hard-line mullahs by declaring that mosques should remain places of worship, not centers of "disruptive activities." One hundred radical clerics had already been placed under house arrest. The detained leaders include figures such as Sami ul-Haq, who runs the large Haqqania madrassah (Islamic school) close to Peshawar where many senior Taliban figures were educated. The largest madrassahs were also placed under army guard.

Friday morning, the security services were out in force on the streets of all major cities. In Peshawar, traditionally a hotbed of religious extremism and widely expected to see violence, 800 police and a 1,200-strong army battalion were deployed. Machine-gun emplacements and armored cars were placed at strategic junctions. Trucks full of soldiers drove slowly through the town center for days beforehand.

The protesters were allowed to take a well-defined route from a central mosque to a large square. Side streets were blocked off with rolls of barbed wire, behind which stood a row of riot police and then a row of soldiers. Other soldiers had taken up positions on rooftops, and military planes and helicopters circled overhead. Most shopkeepers had rolled down their shutters; many joined the streams of men and boys who were heading towards Namak Mandi, the market street where the march began.

The Namak Mandi mosque was overflowing and loudspeakers broadcast the mullah's exhortations and the crowd's enthusiastic response out into the street.

"Musharraf you are a refugee from India, you are not a Muslim," shouted a spokesman for Muslim radicals Jaish-e-Mohammad, referring to the Musharraf family's flight from India to Pakistan in the Partition of 1947.

Most people on the streets expected to see violence. Rumors swept the crowd that militants were carrying hand grenades to throw at the police and Western journalists. Everyone knew that the police were ready to fire should the protests turn sour and that machine guns, crowds and tight, tiny streets could be a disastrous combination.

Many of the young men carried sticks, among them Saeed Shar Pavuki, a 19-year-old Pakistani with only his eyes showing through the scarf wrapped across his face: "We want a peaceful march," said Pavuki. "But we have to defend ourselves in case the police attack us like they did the last time. I'm wearing the scarf in case of tear gas. Also it is what a mujahedin wears."

Just after midday, around 10,000 protesters marched out from the mosque, waving flags and chanting the slogans that have become de rigueur in the last few weeks: "Long live Islam! Long live the Taliban! Death to Bush! Musharraf is a dog!" After listening to a few more impassioned speeches they burned the usual effigy of President Bush, as well as a Tony Blair and a Gen. Musharraf for good measure. When the excitement of the burning had ebbed, the mullah asked everyone to leave peacefully: "Go home, love Allah and your wife."

So everybody went home. The young men who had declared their willingness to die for Islam and their Muslim brothers in Afghanistan saw the firepower of the government's security forces and decided that jihad could wait for another day. They had vowed to fight the American aggressors and all those who supported them -- including, presumably, the Pakistani military -- but went for lunch instead.

Things were a little more serious in Karachi, where a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet was set alight and a grenade was thrown at a police van. Real as the violence was, it is not so out of the ordinary in Karachi, where many longstanding ethnic and sectarian hatreds often boil over.

Quetta, which had seem the most unrest earlier in the week, remained fairly calm, with 15,000 people gathering in a cricket stadium to chant slogans and burn effigies before dispersing quietly, as in Peshawar. Humayoun Jogzai, Quetta's deputy police chief, was proud that for today at least his city remained calm: "If they love holy war so much, let them go to Afghanistan and fight. We don't need jihad here."

Despite earlier setbacks in Quetta, Musharraf has shown that he can control the streets and face down the Islamic parties. If the attacks on Afghanistan are short-lived, as Musharraf has publicly requested, then he may continue to reduce the power and prestige of the religious right while reaping the economic benefits of his American alliance.

However, many Pakistanis who already see the American campaign as a war against Islam, not terrorism, do nothing because they feel they have no choice in the face of American power. If they see weeks or even months of Afghan civilian casualties, then anger at America will grow, and the religious parties' message will become increasingly attractive -- possibly to some army officers as well. Musharraf could face more difficult Fridays.

By Sean Kenny

Sean Kenny is a British freelance writer.

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