SIMON MARKS: These are difficult days for President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. He faces more opposition in Islamabad than ever before, just three years after he seized power in a bloodless coup, and less than a year after he became a pivotal U.S. ally in the war on terror. It is opposition that is not afraid to voice itself publicly.
At this, the first in a series of national rallies, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, an umbrella group of opposition parties, demanded that the President step down. It is opposition that poses a sudden problem for President Musharraf who, while since the attacks of September 11, quickly turned his country from an Islamic patron of the Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan, into one of the architects of its destruction.
PRESIDENT PEREZ MUSHARRAF: Pakistan has a firm position of principle in the international battle against terrorism. We reject terrorism in all its forms and manifestations anywhere in the world. We will continue to fulfill our responsibilities flowing from our commitments.
SIMON MARKS: And it is opposition that threatens to undercut U.S. policy in Pakistan, policy that is now heavily invested in the personality of the country's leader and his continued stewardship at the helm in Islamabad.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: President Musharraf is a leader with great courage and vision. And his nation is a key partner in the global coalition against terror. Pakistan's continuing support of "Operation: Enduring Freedom" has been critical to our success so far in toppling the Taliban and routing out the al-Qaida network.
SIMON MARKS: You can find opposition to President Musharraf almost anywhere in Pakistan today, even at a roadside barber shop in the middle of the nation's capital.
TARIQ DAAS (Translated): Before Musharraf came to power, people trusted him, but now, after three years of his rule, no one trusts him any longer.
MOHAMMED AHMED: For the people and by the people, why Musharraf is in politics? What is his role? He is talking about democracy and even he don't know the ABC's of democracy.
SIMON MARKS: Do you think more and more people are beginning to feel like you feel?
MOHAMMED AHMED: I think the people who are jobless, the people who are illiterate, the people who are poor, the people who are searching for food, the people who have no shelter, they are totally against Musharraf's policies.
SIMON MARKS: The general who ousted the country's elected prime minister in October, 1999, maintains that he enjoys public support and even a mandate to govern Pakistan. In a referendum this past May, 97 percent of the votes cast supported his call for a further five years as President. His opponents insist the ballot was rigged.
Now President Musharraf has called fresh elections this October to choose a new parliament. He is also seeking public support for a package of constitutional amendments that he says will encourage real democracy to emerge here.
Last month he told a national television audience that he wants to make the post of prime minister the most powerful in the nation, not the post of President that he occupies.
PRESIDENT PERVEZ MUSHARRAF: Give power to the prime minister of Pakistan. (Translated:) I am not power hungry. I do not want power, but I want to give strength to the government. I will transfer all executive powers to the prime minister after the October election.
SIMON MARKS: But democracy activists say general Musharraf is power hungry and seeks to disbar many veteran politicians from public service. While the President's image graces the campaign posters of parliamentary candidates loyal to him, a number of leading Pakistani politicians find themselves suddenly prevented from running for office.
GOHAR AYOUB KHAN: I can't-- I'm disqualified.
SIMON MARKS: Gohar Ayoub Khan is a leading member of the Pakistani opposition, but he never graduated from college, and general Musharraf says only college graduates should be allowed to run for election.
GOHAR AYOUB KHAN: I was speaker of the national assembly conducting the business and making rules and procedure, and leader of the parliament opposition of Pakistan, and today-- like the founder of Pakistan, who will not be allowed to contest-- I am not allowed to contest.
SIMON MARKS: Neither would the country's two most popular politicians, former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Both live in exile overseas and run the risk of immediate arrest on criminal charges if they return to Pakistan. On many of the country's editorial pages, the President's proposals are getting the thumbs down. Mohammed Ziauddin edits the influential national daily, Dawn.
MOHAMMED ZIAUDDIN: If you go to what the men proposed, and the kind of referendum he had in the month of April, one comes to the conclusion that he does not want to give up power. He wants to keep all the power in his hands after an elected parliament is put in place.
SIMON MARKS: That, according to many observers here, may be difficult. They argue that free and fair elections would deliver a parliament full of the President's opponents. General Musharraf doesn't just face opposition from those political forces here seeking a return to democracy, he's also under fire from a variety of other causes from figures who don't seek political liberalism for Pakistan, but who still don't like what he has been doing here.
In this deeply Islamic country, the general now finds himself opposed by a significant body of Muslim opinion. Earlier this year, he ordered the country's 10,000 religious schools, the madrassahs, to undergo voluntary registration and regulation.
The U.S. is concerned that these schools, with their intense-- sometimes exclusive-- focus on the study of the Koran, are producing a generation of Pakistanis ill-equipped to deal with the modern, secular world. The clerics who run the madrassahs were outraged by the President's demands, and today these schools are a haven of anti-Musharraf criticism.
RASHID KHAZI: It is just because of the American pressure. America is, in fact, pressurizing the government of Pakistan unnecessarily, and the government of Pakistan, you know, they have bowed and they have surrendered before the American pressure.
SIMON MARKS: Rashid Khazi runs the Jamia Faridia Madrassah in Islamabad, one of the country's largest. He says the school teaches a broad curriculum that includes math, science, and English. He argues that by taking on the madrassahs, President Musharraf has bitten off more than he can chew.
RASHID KHAZI: In my opinion, it's unwise of him that he has opened many fronts. At the same time, maybe he has some pressure or whatever. He might have his own logic behind that, but it's true that he is stepping in a lot of trouble.
SIMON MARKS: Trouble, too, from other elements here that find Pakistan's new relationship with the United States beyond the pale. Hamid Goul is a former head of Pakistan's all-powerful ISI, the Intraservices Intelligence Agency. He's credited with training the anti-soviet Mujahaddin forces in Afghanistan that went on to become the Taliban and he is witheringly critical of the U.S. war against them and the ongoing U.S. military presence in Pakistan aimed at hunting down members of al-Qaida.
HAMID GUL: Ninety-five percent of the people of Pakistan, according to CNN surveys, hate America now because of what America has done and what America is doing: The FBI milling around, midnight knocks at doors, and under the pretext of hunting for al-Qaida, they are doing all sorts of things. They are hurting Pakistan's national pride, our sovereignty, our dignity-- or whatever we have-- and we haven't got anything in return.
SIMON MARKS: Not even sufficient economic assistance, says General Gul, who accuses the U.S. of failing to help alleviate poverty in this deeply impoverished nation. He points to Pakistan's textile industry as an example. It's the backbone of the country's economy, accounting for 30 percent of exports, yet trade barriers still prevent Pakistan from shipping fabrics to the United States, despite the assistance the country has given Washington over the past year. Critics accuse General Musharraf of giving the Bush Administration everything that it wants and getting nothing in return.
HAMID GUL: It is good for them to have a person that enjoys all the authority, he has control over the army, he has control over the parliament, and he sits on top of the National Security Council. There it is with one man. So concentration of power in one hand, it is not Pakistani nation's desire, it is not their needs, it is the need of somebody else. That is, precisely, America.
SIMON MARKS: With opposition to his rule growing and a handful of plots to assassinate him foiled, President Musharraf faces a difficult period between now and the October elections. Some voices here say the United States should prepare itself for a day when a different leader is in charge in Pakistan.
GOHAR AYOUG KHAN: Politically, he will survive. All military generals who help us do, in turn, survive because the political mechanism is not there for their removal. But it's a large country with 140 million people. We can't peg our stakes and destiny to one man. There are thousands and thousands better than maybe General Musharraf to take the mantle, et cetera. It's just that the West is now dealing with him. Dozens and dozens more may be better.
SIMON MARKS: On the outskirts of Islamabad, there's a memorial lionizing Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests. For now, none of President Musharraf's detractors expect anyone else to be controlling the country's nuclear arsenal anytime soon, but they warn that the United States should brace itself for eventual political change in Pakistan, a country that has already shown its former Taliban allies in Afghanistan that it can switch direction rapidly, and with very little warning.
GWEN IFILL: Today, a group of the President's supporters formed an alliance to compete against his detractors in the October elections.