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    South Asia
     Jan 16, 2013


Islamabad lacks Tahrir Square focus
By Syed Fazl-e-Haider

KARACHI - Islamabad virtually turned into another Tahrir Square late on Monday, as tens of thousands of Pakistani protesters, chanting reform slogans swept into Islamabad after a 36-hour long march from the eastern city of Lahore. Their leader, Dr Tahirul Qadri, a cleric who heads the Islamic charity Tehrik-i-Minhajul Quran, demanded that the Pakistani authorities dissolve the national assembly and all four provincial assemblies by the following morning.

"The march has ended and the revolution has begun now. We have entered the age of change", Qadri announced in an address as marchers rallied in Islamabad.

Qadri gave the government a five-minute ultimatum to agree to move the stage to D-Chowk, in front of Parliament House. The

 
government was forced to accept his demand to avoid a clash after thousands of marchers started removing all hurdles on the way to the assembly building.

Under a deal between the Islamabad administration and Qadri, protesters would stage a sit-in at Jinnah Avenue, but Qadri instead asked marchers to move toward D-Chowk. The highly sensitive and heavily guarded area is the location for the diplomatic enclave, Parliament House, the official residencies of the president and the prime minister, and Pakistan's Supreme Court. It is also Qadri's choice for planting the spirit of Tahrir Square, the focal point in Cairo for the revolution that overthrew the Egyptian regime in 2011.

Sit-ins staged by Shi'ite leaders across the country over the targeted killings of the Hazara community in the southwestern city of Quetta forced the federal government on Monday to dismiss the Balochistan government of chief minister Aslam Raisani and to impose governor rule in the province. The demands for change come as the Pakistan People's Party central government is set to be the first administration to complete a five-year term in March.

Two days before marching on Islamabad, Qadri, a Pakistani-Canadian, called for the dissolution of the Election Commission of Pakistan and the formation of a new impartial commission. By aiming to convert Islamabad's administrative area into another Tahrir Square, Qadri is positioning himself to bring revolution to Pakistan on an Egyptian model.

While addressing a huge gathering of a half-million people in Lahore on his arrival from Canada on December 23, the charismatic Qadri had given the government a January 10 deadline to place a clean and trustworthy caretaker set-up in consultation with the military, judiciary and other stakeholders to carry out reforms and to ruthlessly impose accountability of the corrupt ruling elite.

He also announced his intention to launch the long march and to turn Islamabad into a Tahrir Square until his demands are met in letter and spirit.

"We will stay in Islamabad until this government is finished, all the assemblies are dissolved, all corrupt people are totally ousted, a just constitution is imposed, rule of law is enforced, and true and real democracy is enforced," AFP reported Qadri as saying.

Like Egypt, surging inflation and poverty levels are fueling unrest in Pakistan. Unlike Egypt, Pakistan has an elected parliament, an elected government, an independent media and a powerful judiciary. If Qadri wants Islamabad to become another Tahrir Square, as happened in Egypt against authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak, he overlooks the fact that there is no figure in the shape of former president Hosni Mubarak to rail against.

Is Pakistan really ripe for a similar set of events that convulsed Egypt in 2011? Can corruption, bad governance, surging poverty levels and soaring commodity prices lead to a spontaneous outburst of the peoples' anger against the unpopular government, whose tenure expires in three months?

"Our agenda is just democratic electoral reforms," Qadri was reported as saying by Reuters. "We don't want the law-breakers to become our lawmakers."

Qadri's long march fueled conspiracy theories in the country ahead of general elections, which are set to be held before June. His critics say that he is being backed and used by the country's powerful military establishment as a proxy to delay the polls and derail democracy. The military wants to place a selected interim government for at least two years, a model previously in place in Bangladesh.

The interim set-up will include technocrats who would be tasked with reforming the system of governance and putting the country's ailing economy on track. Pakistan's political history debunks the likelihood of such adventures and experiments by the military proving to be a success; previously they have been a disaster for the country.

Daily Times, the country's leading newspaper recently commented,
"While Dr Qadri has gone to some lengths to reject any suggestion that he is being instigated or supported by any secret agency or the establishment, most observers are suspicious of the closeness of Dr Qadri's ostensible agenda and the rumored toying by the establishment with the idea of postponing if not canceling the elections in favor of a selected interim setup of uncertain duration (the Bangladeshi model modified to our peculiar circumstances?). Needless to say, based on our history, such an adventure would be an unmitigated disaster."
At present, there is no authoritarian rule in Pakistan as there was in Egypt when the Tahrir Square protests forced president Mubarak to leave office, while in 1999, Qadri supported the military set-up of General Pervez Musharraf and won a parliamentary seat in the rigged elections of 2002. Critics call the Qadri agenda as "derailment of democracy" in a country where the army has ruled for more than half of its history.

The country's security and foreign policies are dominated by the military and it has been suicidal for any civilian government to defy the security establishment by taking a different line on an issue related to foreign policy or national security.

What will be the consequences of turning Islamabad into another Tahrir Square? Pakistan may plunge into deep political crisis.

The prospect of political anarchy in this nuclear-armed country bordering Afghanistan and having strongholds of Taliban militants fuels international concerns. It could be a big setback for the United States-led war on Islamist extremists at a time when the Afghan war endgame is set to begin.

Syed Fazl-e-Haider ( www.syedfazlehaider.com ) is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan, published in May 2004. E-mail sfazlehaider05@yahoo.com

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