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Pakistan Anti-Government Protests Greeted With Negative Public Response

Pakistani supporters of opposition politician Imran Khan gather during an anti-government protest in front of parliament in Islamabad on August 20, 2014.
Pakistani supporters of opposition politician Imran Khan gather during an anti-government protest in front of parliament in Islamabad on August 20, 2014.

Demonstrations demanding the dissolution of the Pakistani government have drawn widespread criticism across the country.

Political activists, courts, traders, and the media have flayed opposition leader Imran Khan and conservative Islamist cleric Tahir-ul Qadri for threatening democracy and inviting chaos by calling for civil disobedience and marching on parliament.

On the evening of August 19, upwards of 50,000 followers of Khan and Qadri descended on Islamabad’s "red zone," the most protected district of the capital and home to embassies and government buildings.

The two leaders are demanding that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign immediately. Khan claims that Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Party rigged the May 2013 elections that brought him to power.

Qadri is demanding an investigation into the killing of his followers, he alleges by police, in June and August. Khan and Qadri accuse Sharif and his allies of involvement in massive corruption and illegal business dealings.

On August 20, the Pakistani Supreme Court issued notices to Khan and Qadri to explain their protests before the court on August 21.

Journalists and civil society groups held a counter demonstration condemning the calls for the dissolution of the government.

Even Pakistani celebrities are denouncing the protests. Jamal Shah, a leading television actor, embarked on a hunger strike.

"My hunger strike is against fascism of IK [Imran Khan] and TUQ [Tahir-ul Qadri] in support of democracy," he wrote on Twitter.

Lawmaker Khursheed Shah, leader of the opposition in the lower house of the Pakistani Parliament, said all political parties have a responsibility to protect democracy.

"We are not a friendly opposition but we are with the system, with the parliament, the constitution, and with democracy," he told lawmakers on August 18.

After nearly a week of protests, the major political parties seem united against Khan and Qadri, but the two committees they formed to negotiate with the leaders have so far failed to prevent the demonstrations.

Pakistani media has reported that both the ruling and opposition parties are planning counter-protests against Khan and Qadri's marches in major cities across the country.

The provincial legislature in the southwestern province of Balochistan adopted a unanimous resolution on August 18 to condemn the protests in Islamabad.

"The agendas Tahir-ul Qadri and Imran Khan are moving forward are against democracy, parliament, and the constitution of Pakistan," lawmaker Hameed Khan Achakzai told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.

Mir Qalam, a displaced resident of North Waziristan, who fled his home during a government offensive against militants in the area, questioned the motives of the protesting leaders as well.

"Both are protesting only to safeguard their political interests," he told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "We suffered at the hands of terrorists for 13 years. And now these protests have diverted the attention of the government, media, and international community from our problems. We really are the worst victims in this country."

Local traders say they have suffered deep financial losses as a result of the demonstrations. Most businesses in Islamabad have been closed since the beginning of the unrest on August 14.

On a macroeconomic level, the Pakistani stock market crashed on August 10 in anticipation of a political upheaval. Pakistani Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said that the turmoil has so far incurred more than four billion dollars in losses.

Khan's call for civil disobedience includes refusing to pay utility bills and taxes.

"We strongly reject such an appeal of lawlessness, which will lead to a financial disaster," said Zakaria Usman, president of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

The most severe criticism for Khan and Qadri, however, is reserved for television talk shows and newspaper columns.

In its editorial, aptly titled "anti-climax," English language daily "The Express Tribune" called the protests an “overplayed hand” lacking clarity “in terms of both political objectives and strategy."

"The Nation," another English language daily, called the protests "anarcho-fascism." It accused Khan of having a "bloated ego, no understanding of politics and protest, no philosophy or strategy guiding him, and a following that is officially disappointed in him."