ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - How much public approval President Pervez Musharraf wins from his confrontation with Islamist militants holed up in an Islamabad mosque will depend on the number of casualties if troops end the siege by force.
The last thing the Pakistani leader needs in an election year, as he grapples with the rockiest period of his presidency, would be an unacceptably high number of women and children killed by soldiers if they storm the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque.
On day seven of the mosque siege, with at least 21 people killed so far, Musharraf appeared to have broad support for the use of force. Many people say it should have been done six months ago when trouble first stirred.
“It could end with them all coming out or it could end in a bloodbath,” Stephen Cohen, South Asia expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington, said on Monday.
“I see this as a catastrophe for Musharraf. He can’t push this off on anyone else. It happened right under his nose. He drove by it every day,” Cohen said.
Having come to power in a coup eight years ago, Musharraf is projected as a leader who can save Pakistan’s moderate Muslim majority from the militant, religious extremism invading cities from tribal areas along the northwest frontier.
The United States also sees Musharraf as a valuable ally fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban along that border.
However, many Pakistanis, and parts of the Western media, regard this image with suspicion and say Pakistan would be stronger if it was a working democracy, rather than a half-way house led by a president whose main constituency is the army.
“The crisis helped the general because it made the threat of extremism more real than it is,” Babar Sattar wrote in the News, Pakistan’s largest selling English-language newspaper.
“It has established that when push comes to shove, the general doesn’t shy away from acting.”
The trend toward extremism has been dubbed “Talibanisation” by the media, and Musharraf says he regards it as the greatest threat to Pakistani society.
For all his talk of turning Pakistan into a country of “enlightened moderation”, critics say he has given Islamists too much leeway and been too selective in the militants on whom his security apparatus clamped down.
They point to a shambolic policy of registering and monitoring the country’s 10,000-plus religious schools, or madrasas, and the growth of radical madrasas, or seminaries.
A scathing editorial in the News, headlined “Whither madrasa reform?” said: “It would be fair to assume that the kind of brainwashed students seen at ... Lal Masjid may well be found in many other seminaries in the country”.
Opposition politicians say the stifling of democracy under Musharraf has played into the hands of religious conservatives, allowing them to win control of two of Pakistan’s four provinces.
Self-exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has said the best thing would be an alliance between herself and Musharraf.
Together, with herself at the helm of a popularly elected government, Bhutto says they could halt the Islamist march.
Bhutto, who remains coy about the prospects of a deal, warned that forthcoming elections would be crucial for the fate of Pakistan.
“I believe that if we do not have a restoration of democracy this year the number of political madrasas will increase,” she told the BBC on Monday.