As most senior Pakistani opposition politicians languish in prison amid a government crackdown, a seasoned Islamist leader has emerged as the most serious threat to the country’s government.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI), an Islamist political party, is determined to march on Islamabad next month after his deadline for Prime Minister Imran Khan to step down expired on August 31.
“We are going to march on Islamabad because people from all walks of life and various political leanings are agonized [ by policies of this government],” he told the private Aaj TV recently. “All of them have now united and have realized that nothing good will happen without the end of this government.”
Rehman is threatening to ‘lockdown’ Islamabad by bringing in some 1 million supporters in October when holding large protests will be much easier in the mild fall weather.
The 66-year-old politician and former lawmaker is hoping that the first year of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party has given everyone enough reasons to push for ousting it from office long before its five-year constitutional term ends in 2023.
During the past year, Pakistanis have experienced a rapid economic decline, rising inflation, a harsh crackdown on dissent, and tensions with archrival neighboring India. All this is a far cry from the PTI’s election promises of a just society based on shared prosperity, justice, and meritocracy.
Rehman and other opposition politicians argue that the party has delivered little despite unprecedented support from the country’s powerful military, which they blame for bringing the PTI into power by rigging the July 2018 election in its favor. The Pakistani military, however, rejects manipulating politics while the PTI denies being supported by the military.
Rehman appears to be the only politician to have worked out a plan to challenge the PTI administration. He has labored behind the scenes to unite opposition parties in questioning the PTI’s performance and the military’s alleged role in bringing it into power and bolstering its administration. He is now working to entice them into joining what he says will be unprecedented street protests. Since the beginning of the year, he has organized a dozen large protests that his party dubbed as ‘million marches’ to flex his political muscle.
He now says that in addition to the issues championed by the Islamists, the protest will focus on the grievances and problems of all Pakistanis.
“Everyone will participate,” he noted. “We will raise the question of inflation, economic crisis, and all the other crises that affect the country and impact all sections of the society.”
Major opposition parties appear to be receptive.
Ammar Masood, a columnist, says that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, imprisoned on graft charges, has thrown his weight behind the protest. “He [Sharif] has conveyed to his supporters that they should join Maulana in his protest,” Masood said. While Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party has yet to formally endorse Rehman’s protest, some leaders have called for new elections next year.
Sharif has served as Pakistan’s prime minister three times. His PML-N’s main support base in the eastern province of Punjab is crucial in determining the immediate political future of the country. The most populous province surrounds Islamabad’s capital territory from three sides and dominates the country’s economy, intelligentsia, and key state institutions such as the parliament and the armed forces.
Khan’s administration, however, is keen to downplay the planned protest. Interior Minister Ijaz Shah recently hinted that the government might resort to using force if the protest turns violent. But he emphasized that the protest is unlikely to attract large-scale participation.
“Under normal circumstances, people are likely to pelt them with stones there [in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the procession will begin],” he told the private Geo television. “I am of the view that they must come out to protest so that they can die a self-inflicted death.”
But independent observers are skeptical of the government’s ability to contain large-scale protests in Islamabad. Talat Hussain, an Islamabad-based journalist, says that agitation in recent years shows that only a few thousand protesters can choke the capital by blocking key squares and roads.
In 2014, Khan paralyzed Islamabad by besieging the parliament for several months. Supporters of a hard-line Islamist group cut off the capital by blocking a main square in 2017.
“It is very difficult for any state to subjugate its citizens down the barrel of a gun,” Hussain noted. “People who think that they will disperse the protest by using force live in a fool’s paradise. They are playing with fire.”
In the tumultuous world of Pakistani politics, a lot can change between now and October, but Rehman’s protest looms large over Khan’s fledgling administration.