Imran looks isolated as crisis reaches crossroads

*Dr Qadri may order his crowd to go back *Security forces surround protest area

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan appeared isolated in his struggle to bring down the prime minister on Thursday after a fellow protest leader announced he was ready to allow anti-government demonstrators to go home.

Pakistan has been gripped by mass rallies for two weeks, with thousands of protesters led by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri camped outside the parliament demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Both the opposition leaders had warned that Thursday would be a decisive day in their efforts to bring down the government.

But Qadri's camp unexpectedly issued a statement, saying the government had met none of their demands and therefore protesters could leave. The statement from the Pakistan Awami Tehreek said that Dr Qadri would make a speech to his supporters later in the day to deliver the message. It was not clear from the statement whether this means his camp had given up on its demands.

"Dr Qadri is expected to say to the crowd that they are free to go back," the party said in the statement. "Pakistanis have been burning in the flames of hunger, poverty and injustice but nobody cares for them." The departure of Qadri's highly organised supporters from the protest area in the heart of Islamabad would seriously undermine Imran Khan's efforts to breathe new life into his movement which many already expect to fizzle out soon.

The atmosphere in the capital remained tense as security forces sent reinforcements to surround the protest area, reflecting expectations of possible violence or clashes after two weeks of broken ultimatums and unpredictable twists. As talks on how to resolve the impasse repeatedly failed, the crowd in the red zone – home to the prime minister's home, parliament and embassies – has been grown thinner, leaving the area littered with rubbish and reeking of human waste.

Yet, in a show of defiance, some protesters have dug graves at the site to show they are prepared to die for their cause. Imran appeared defiant, saying he would not abandon his demands. "I will not leave here. I will not accept this monarchy. I want real democracy,” he told his supporters. Imran wants Nawaz Sharif to step down because he believes the prime minister rigged the election.

Nawaz Sharif, who denies that, won the vote by a landslide, taking 190 of the 342 seats. The ballot was the first democratic transfer of power in Pakistan's history and also propelled Imran Khan from a fringe player to the head of the third-largest legislative bloc. The country has swung between democracy and military rule for decades and the army's position is the key to what happens next.

Few expect the army to try to grab power again. It has stayed out of the stand-off, providing security for Nawaz Sharif and key government installations and calling on all sides to show restraint and solve the dispute through political means. But even as protests lose steam, observers still expect Nawaz Sharif to emerge significantly weakened from the crisis, with the army likely to further sideline him on security and foreign policy issues.

Qadri, who has a huge following and runs a network of schools and hospitals, said on Wednesday that Thursday would be the ‘Revolution Day.’ Both Qadri and Imran have made many dramatic statements about their intentions, most of which have not materialised. Several ultimatums have passed without action whereas, Nawaz Sharif has rejected their call for his resignation.



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