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How a few thousand protesters hold a capital city to ransom

When an Islamabad court gave the government 24 hours last Friday to deal with protesters led by a group of religious parties occupying one of the main entry points to the capital city, the residents of Islamabad and its twin city, Rawalpindi, held their collective breath.
As TV reporters camped out at the site of the sit-in late into the night, nothing happened. In the war of nerves between a few thousand protesters and five million residents, police, paramilitary troops, the city administration and the government, the protesters won.
Over the weekend, court orders, negotiations, and several appeals to humanity by Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal all failed. For two weeks, the Barelvi-sect demonstrators have been immovable. For two weeks, hundreds of thousands of commuters who travel between Islamabad and Rawalpindi daily for work, business, education or to access hospital facilities have had to wait hours to reach their destinations. Two people — including a child —  died because an ambulance was stuck in traffic.
According to court orders, protesters can gather in a designated space — called Parade Ground — in the federal capital. But instead of being shepherded to the protest ground as they walked into the capital, the hundreds of demonstrators were allowed to camp out at a key interchange connecting Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The protest had been advertised in advance and yet the police had no clear orders to manage it.
Government sources say the strategy is to wear out the protesters. Police action is the last resort, says Ahsan Iqbal. So far, it appears that it is the few thousand demonstrators who are wearing out the government.
The demonstrators are the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a wheelchair-bound Barelvi cleric with a penchant for peppering his speeches with swear words. Among other demands, he has called for the resignation of law minister Zahid Hamid over a change in the declaration form for election candidates regarding the belief that the Prophet Mohammed was the last prophet; the words in the declaration form had been changed from “I believe” to “I solemnly swear.”
The form was changed as part of a raft of electoral reforms put through bipartisan consultations in both the upper and lower houses of parliament over two and a half years. In other words, all political and religio-political parties had given it the nod. The change was brought to public notice only during the final approval stage by a strident opposition leader, Sheikh Rasheed, with one seat in parliament.
The ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), quickly tried to stamp out fiery reactions. Meetings were held with other opposition party members of parliament. It was announced that the wording in the declaration form would return to what it was before. Law minister Zahid Hamid, who had headed the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms, said the change was due to a “clerical error.” Profuse apologies were made.

Islamabad is at a standstill because the Barelvi sect are challenging five million residents, police, paramilitary troops, the city administration and the government — and they’re winning.

Amber Rahim Shamsi

But in a highly polarized political atmosphere charged with religious sectarianism, such an “error” is easily exploited.
Since July, when the former prime minister and party leader Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from public office in the Panama Papers judgment, the ruling party has been trying to hold itself together amid an internal war of succession. PMLN is also trying to make it through the last leg before the next elections as the triumphant opposition bays for blood. The beleaguered ex-PM has also been vocal against the powerful so-called “establishment,” comprising the military, the bureaucracy and members of the judiciary.
Quietly, as national parties fought out their differences, the TLY also contested the by-elections held for the seat of the disqualified prime minister. It came third, polling more than six times the votes of mainstream religio-political party Jamaat-e-Islami and the second-largest political party in parliament, the progressive PPP.
The TLY’s hero is Mumtaz Qadri — the police officer who murdered former provincial governor Salman Taseer over Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. Barelvi groups, including that of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, have become increasingly politicized since Qadri was executed in 2016. Local TV channels were not allowed to cover the funeral or its anniversary, which thousands attended.
Twice before, Barelvi groups have either stormed or protested in the capital, calling for the immediate execution of all those on death row convicted under the blasphemy law. Both times, a way out was found after minor inconveniences to the public and damage to public property.
But the Faizabad sit-in has become bigger because of fear. There can be no doubt that it is not motivated by faith and religion. Like other political parties, this is an opportunity for TLY to cast its net wider before the elections. Historically, religio-political parties have never been elected in large numbers to the parliament. Their real currency is the street, and the fear of violence.
Last week, the law minister circulated a video declaring his firm belief in the finality of prophethood and his love of the Prophet Mohammed. Reports say his family is being sent abroad for their protection. The local administration says the TLY protesters have weapons and stones. Indeed, they have already clashed with the police, media persons and onlookers.
Given the government’s reluctance to use force even at the risk of looking weak, the question is what concessions will it make to bring a few thousand to heel.
• Amber Rahim Shamsi is an award-winning multimedia journalist who hosts the Newswise news and current affairs show on Dawn News. She has worked with the BBC World Service as a bilingual reporter, presenter and producer. Twitter: @AmberRShamsi