▶ With about 50,000 peo­ple camped out in the cap­i­tal, the prime min­is­ter faces an­other ma­jor chal­lenge

The National - News - - NEWS WORLD - BEN FARMER Is­lam­abad

Nearly a week af­ter as many as 50,000 peo­ple de­scended on Pak­istan’s cap­i­tal to de­mand the re­moval of Prime Min­is­ter Im­ran Khan, both he and the pro­test­ers are still there.

What be­gan as a march led by the hard­line Jamiat Ule­mae-Is­lam (JUI-F) party has now be­come a sit-in while the party leader flexes his po­lit­i­cal mus­cle and ne­go­ti­ates with the govern­ment and op­po­si­tion.

Each night for the past week, Mul­lah Fa­zlur Rehman has spo­ken to the crowd de­nounc­ing Mr Khan’s govern­ment, say­ing it was ush­ered in with mil­i­tary help af­ter a rigged elec­tion and is ru­in­ing the coun­try.

Then, each day he holds talks with the govern­ment and fel­low op­po­si­tion par­ties de­mand­ing Mr Khan step down and that new elec­tions are held.

“We will stay as long as the maulana [mul­lah] or­ders us to,” said Shah Nawaz, a madras­sah teacher from Balochis­tan.

The sheer num­ber of peo­ple mo­bilised by Mr Rehman from sem­i­nar­ies and party net­works has cre­ated the first sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal chal­lenge to Mr Khan since he rose to power 16 months ago.

Thou­sands of po­lice re­in­force­ments have been drafted and main roads to the district hous­ing par­lia­ment and min­istries are sealed off.

The dis­play of party po­lit­i­cal power has also en­livened an op­po­si­tion that had ap­peared frac­tured and sub­dued un­der a bar­rage of anti-cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions that have locked up many of its lead­ers.

The en­camp­ment on the side of an Is­lam­abad mo­tor­way, about eight kilo­me­tres from the coun­try’s Par­lia­ment, is dis­ci­plined and well or­gan­ised. Pro­test­ers ar­rived in con­voys of buses and mini­vans com­plete with bed­ding, tents and sup­plies.

A force of khaki-clad vol­un­teers keep or­der among the crowds pass­ing the time pray­ing and chat­ting. Their gripes are po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and re­li­gious. There is anger at the elec­tion re­sult and frus­tra­tion at price rises and an eco­nomic slump.

“I am here to de­mol­ish this govern­ment. It’s a fake govern­ment,” said Saleh Mo­ham­mad, a farmer from the poverty-stricken prov­ince of Balochis­tan, who ar­rived with a dozen friends.

Fayzan Rehman, 32, who runs a small busi­ness­man came from the cap­i­tal and said he joined in be­cause he was “fed up with what has been go­ing on for the last year and a half”.

“Busi­ness has de­clined. If you see my work­sheet for the past five years, I was in profit and for the past six months, my in­come is al­most zero,” he said.

“I have seen the level of com­mit­ment and the mood is ris­ing. For me, it has be­come a move­ment. Whether they achieve their goal or not, they have ex­posed the govern­ment.”

Other com­plaints among the faith­ful of the right-wing party are more hard­line re­li­gious. Sev­eral al­leged Mr Khan was a Jewish agent, or be­moaned the re­lease of Asia Bibi, the Chris­tian farm­hand who fled abroad this year when her death penalty was quashed af­ter she was falsely ac­cused of blas­phemy.

Mr Rehman at first gave Mr Khan a 48-hour ul­ti­ma­tum to quit. The prime min­is­ter re­fused. The larger op­po­si­tion groups have also been luke­warm in their sup­port for his sit-in.

Mr Khan’s spe­cial ad­viser on in­for­ma­tion and broad­cast­ing, Fir­dous Ashiq Awan, yes­ter­day called Mr Rehman “po­lit­i­cally iso­lated”.

“Maulana should step out of self-de­cep­tion and [stop] both­er­ing the pub­lic. You have failed in [your] scheme. Do not at­tack the demo­cratic process and in­sult the pub­lic man­date like the oth­ers who were re­jected in the gen­eral elec­tions,” she said.

Yet the size of the JUI-F mo­bil­i­sa­tion has forced Mr Khan’s govern­ment to have sev­eral days of ne­go­ti­a­tions with Mr Rehman. Yes­ter­day, they were still dead­locked.

Mr Rehman’s de­mand for the prime min­is­ter’s res­ig­na­tion has been re­jected, but De­fence Min­is­ter Pervez Khat­tak, who is lead­ing the govern­ment’s ne­go­ti­a­tion team, said he is “still hope­ful of find­ing a mid­dle ground”.

Such ground could po­ten­tially in­clude prom­ises to re­form the elec­tion com­mis­sion and hold the next gen­eral elec­tion with­out mil­i­tary in­volve­ment, said Muham­mad Amir Rana, a po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity an­a­lyst.

The mil­i­tary ap­pears to still back Mr Khan.

A state­ment from Gen Qa­mar Javed Ba­jwa, chief of the army staff, this week said no one would be al­lowed to un­der­mine sta­bil­ity.

As Daud Jan, an Is­lam­abad hospi­tal worker, wan­dered around the site out of cu­rios­ity, he pre­dicted the show of peo­ple power would ul­ti­mately not dis­lodge Mr Khan.

“Sure, it’s a big num­ber, but it’s not dan­ger­ous for Im­ran Khan’s govern­ment. Peo­ple still be­lieve in him.”

But the dis­play could po­ten­tially em­bolden the big­ger op­po­si­tion par­ties to chal­lenge Mr Khan them­selves in the com­ing months, Mr Rana said.

Maulana should step out of self-de­cep­tion and stop both­er­ing the pub­lic. You have failed in your scheme FIR­DOUS ASHIQ AWAN Pres­i­dent’s spe­cial ad­viser on in­for­ma­tion and broad­cast­ing


Sup­port­ers of Jamiat Ulema-e-Is­lam lis­ten to lead­ers dur­ing the Free­dom March, called by the op­po­si­tion in Is­lam­abad, to protest against the govern­ment

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