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Pakistani Gov’t Scrambles To Prevent Large-Scale Protest

FILE: Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI) leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
FILE: Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI) leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s civilian government is facing an unprecedented protest aimed at toppling his administration.

His ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), is utilizing an array of tactics to prevent a protest planned by Islamist Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI) from happening later this month. Dubbed a “freedom march,” the protest aims to oust the PTI by flooding the capital, Islamabad, with hundreds of thousands of JUI and opposition supporters.

Given that JUI leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman seems determined to begin marching on Islamabad on October 27, the PTI has many reasons to worry. Its crackdown on dissent has united myriad political parties and interest groups. Khan has little to show for his first year in office as Islamabad has faced diplomatic setbacks abroad and a domestic economic downturn. Even the party’s main backers in the Pakistani military establishment are finding it difficult to counter widespread public disaffection with the PTI amid a military leadership transition.

One indication of the panic in the corridors of power is the level of spin that senior government figures are employing in an attempt to stop Rehman.

“As long as the people understand that the direction of our administration is right, that we are not corrupt and working for the benefit of the people, nothing will happen to this government,” Interior Minister Ijaz Shah told reporters on October 8.

But he said his administration is unlikely to lift Section 144 of the Criminal Code Procedure from parts of Islamabad. Pakistani authorities frequently invoke this archaic law to ban protests and large gatherings.

In August, Shah predicted Rehman would be pelted with stones in his native northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the protest march will begin and is likely to attract the bulk of its support. “I am of the view that they must come out to protest so that they can die a self-inflicted death,” Shah said.

Ali Amin Gandapur, another PTI minister, sent a defamation notice to Rehman through his lawyers on October 7.

“We have evidence against Maulana that he is working on a foreign agenda,” Gandapur claimed. “I will approach the court if Maulana Fazlur Rehman did not tender an apology publicly and step back from his plan of holding a foreign-funded march within 15 days.”

The Pakistani press frequently reports on such notices, but the courts rarely punish senior public figures in defamation cases. Media reports indicate that some litigants are approaching courts to stop Rehman’s protest.

Senior members of Khan’s cabinet are also trolling Rehman’s protest on social media. Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry was criticized after tweeting fake “instructional guidelines” attributed to the JUI.

“Unbelievable intentions. The instruction number six on this list shows that it is a protest of the ‘pink’ movement in Amsterdam or San Francisco,” Chaudhry wrote on October 6 in an apparent insult aimed at the JUI by comparing its protest to gay gatherings in Western cities.

The instruction he referred to asked protest participants to perform “gay sex only with the permission of their leaders.” Homosexuality is a major taboo in all Muslim countries and punishable by death in some because it is considered a cardinal sin under Islamic Shari’a law.

The JUI termed the “instructional guidelines” fake and condemned the PTI. “Our supporters should not pay attention to such propaganda efforts,” JUI leader Maulana Ghafoor Haidri said in an October 7 message. “They are seeing their [political] death, which is why they have descended to such tactics.”

While Chaudhry later deleted the controversial tweet, it spurred demands for Pakistan’s harsh cybercrimes laws to be invoked against him for peddling a smear campaign against the JUI.

Salim Safi, a columnist and television host, says such tactics are in fact helping Rehman. Safi, who recently met Rehman, says the 66-year-old cleric is confident the PTI’s mistake will ultimately sink its boat.

“Maulana [Fazlur Rehman] thinks the steps this government will take in panic will make his task of [forcing them from power easy],” he told the private Geo Television. “For many pragmatic people within the government, its performance in office is also worrying.”

After 13 months in power, few things are going right for the PTI. A recent consumer confidence survey by Ipsos, a global market research firm, showed that domestic confidence in the Pakistani economy was declining. During the past year, the country’s currency has rapidly depreciated while inflation, unemployment and taxes have skyrocketed.

On the diplomatic front, Islamabad has faced persistent tensions with archrival India while its role in an uneven peace process in neighboring Afghanistan has yet to deliver any noticeable benefits to Islamabad. The country still faces the possibility of being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental money-laundering watchdog.

Most of the administration’s problems, however, are domestic. Its crackdown on dissent and jailing of opposition politicians in the name of accountability have united them at a time when many in the country’s tightly controlled media are revolting against censorship and micromanagement by the authorities.

“We are against the politics of sit-ins, but if the government continues putting its political opponents in jail there will be no option for us but to stage a sit-in and send the government packing,” Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the young leader of the secular Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), told reporters on October 7.

The PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the two leading opposition parties, and several smaller ethno-nationalist and Islamist parties might join the JUI protest if it attracts enough popular support.

The JUI’s protest comes at a sensitive time testing Khan’s relationship with the country’s powerful generals. In August, Khan granted a new term in office to incumbent army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. He is set is to begin his new term in office in November. A protest crippling the capital during that time might empower those who oppose his extended term inside and outside the army, which prides itself on professional discipline but frequently meddles in politics and is not immune to outside pressures.

For Khan, 67, events are turning full circle. As an opposition leader in 2014, he camped outside the Pakistani Parliament for four months in a botched attempt to force then Prime Minister and PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif from power.

“No one has been able to blackmail me. You can make as much noise as you want -- go and protest on the roads,” he told the opposition in his inaugural speech in August 2018. “We will provide you with containers if you would like to stage a sit-in protest.”

What he said next might prove to have been prescient. “[While protesting,] I spent four months in a container,” he noted. “Now I am telling you, [PML-N leader] Shehbaz Sharif, that if you and Maulana Fazlur Rehman spend a month in the container, I will accept all of your demands.”