ISLAMABAD – Thousands of riot police sealed off capital with barbed wire and shipping containers on the eve of the Independence Day in a bid to foil mass protests aimed at toppling embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Two groups, led by opposition politician Imran Khan and fiery cleric Tahirul Qadri, plan to converge on Islamabad on Thursday intent on forcing the prime minister to call an early election little more than a year after his landslide victory at the polls. On Wednesday, police said that they had detained some 2,100 followers of the two populist opposition figures in the past few days, and with all the obstacles in their path it was uncertain how many protesters would reach the capital.
While police and paramilitary manned barricades round the city, how far Imran Khan and Qadri succeed in destabilising the government could ultimately depend on the stance taken by a military with a long history of mounting coups. The protesters insist they are reformers crusading against corruption and say last year's election was fraudulent, whereas government loyalists accuse them of being a front for darker, anti-democratic forces.
While the political temperature has become more feverish, army generals have stayed silent. Many analysts doubt whether the military wants to seize power, but there is a widespread perception that it could use the opportunity to put the civilian government under its thumb.
"The idea was to put pressure on our government and it has worked," a minister told Reuters, requesting anonymity. "Once this is over, things will be a lot more difficult for the government. The decision-making space will be reduced. It is unfortunate that anti-democratic forces have pushed things to this point."
Speaking to journalists in Lahore, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid was more direct, accusing a former spymaster of coordinating the security for Imran Khan's protest. The local media identified him as Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who retired as head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate two years ago. Neither Pasha or Imran were available for comment.
Nawaz Sharif and the military have an unhappy history. His last term in office ended in 1999, when then army chief General Pervez Musharraf launched a coup that heralded a decade of military rule. Since returning to power, Nawaz has been at odds with generals who seemed happy to leave running rickety economy to civilians but guard their dominant influence over security, defence and foreign affairs.
Relations with the military quickly soured when the government prosecuted Musharraf last year for treason, angering officers who see the army as saviour and despise politicians as corrupt. Recently Nawaz Sharif has relented. Musharraf's prosecution ground to a halt and he was released from house arrest, but he remains unable to leave Pakistan.
For all the conspiracy theories over the brewing crisis, Nawaz Sharif's loyalists have avoided spreading suspicion over serving generals, and the government last month entrusted security in the capital to the military. “There may be individuals involved in this (protest), friends of Musharraf, perhaps. But we don't see any evidence that the army as an institution is involved,” said Ahsan Iqbal, federal minister and the secretary-general of ruling party.
Both Imran Khan and Qadri have also repeatedly denied having secret military support. “I am not saying call in the army,” the PTI chief said on a televised speech. "The army is not the solution." A military spokesman did not return messages but the military has often said it does not meddle in politics. So far the government's response to the protests has been a mixture of carrots and sticks.
Qadri, who controls a network of religious schools and charities, has met with stiff opposition. He has a history of organising protests. Last year, he returned from his home in Canada to lead tens of thousands of followers who camped out on the capital's main street for four days. The cleric had planned to hold another protest in Lahore on Sunday but was thwarted by mass arrests of his followers.