Wannabe Tahrir Square: Pakistanis Reject Orchestrated “Revolution” Led by Firebrand Cleric

by Neha Ansari

Islamabad’s D-Chowk was to become the next Tahrir Square. There, a ‘revolution’ led by a Pakistani-Canadian Islamic Law professor, Dr. Muhammad Tahir ul Qadri, sought to compel the Pakistani elected government to let go of their power, dissolve the legislative assemblies, and make way for elections. While the people of Pakistan supported the goals sought by Dr. Qadri, they did not support his method of achieving those objectives, and ultimately rejected the firebrand mullah and his orchestrated Pakistani Spring.

Dr. Qadri, who began appearing in the media in November 2012, presented an ultimatum to the government in January to step down and hold fair elections. But the people of Pakistan, also in favor of holding elections, reacted with neither jubilation nor relief. Rather, they were confused about who Dr. Qadri was, where he had come from, and who was supporting him. Soon after the ultimatum, the media began an investigation into Dr. Qadri. His credentials, his dual nationality, and his political connections were all scrutinized. Despite being unknown in Pakistan, Dr. Qadri was well-established in the West after his fatwa against terrorism propelled him into the spotlight and earned him invitations to speak at think tanks and the World Economic Forum. “Terrorism and violence cannot be permissible in Islam,” he said to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2010 during an interview. In the eyes of the international community, he represented the benign Islamist, an Islamic scholar willing to speak out against violence.

Fast forward to the present and Dr. Qadri, claiming to wage a battle for the people of Pakistan, was increasingly perceived as loud, irritating, and sensationalist with questionable motives. Although the people had not asked him to fight for them, he somehow became the face of the change Pakistanis want. The public want elections to take place soon. They want a smooth transfer of power, but the present government, seen as corrupt and inept, had been delaying elections for months on the pretext of some logistical or bureaucratic matter. The government should have dissolved the assemblies and appointed a caretaker government in November or December 2012, but instead elections were put on the backburner. Some speculated that President Asif Ali Zardari wanted to circumvent the constitution and get re-elected for another five years by the same National Assembly in which his party has a majority.

People agreed with Dr. Qadri’s call for change, but not with the way he was demanding it. His public grandstanding was seen as disruptive to Pakistani democracy. When Dr. Qadri launched his ‘million-man march’ that shut down Islamabad for three days, fears of another military intervention fueled further political instability. As the people and the media witnessed the perseverance of Qadri’s followers’ on the streets, the Supreme Court gave orders for the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in connection to a corruption case in which he allegedly received kickbacks. The Supreme Court verdict jolted the executive who convinced Qadri to end the march.

The Supreme Court’s verdict created further frustration with and suspicion of Qadri. An accusation circulated that Qadri,funded and supported by the military and intelligence agencies, was working with the Supreme Court to derail democracy by disrupting the political process in such a way that a military response would be the only means by which to restore stability. Against this backdrop, the Pakistani public rejected Qadri and his ‘revolution.’ The people wanted the government to transfer power to a caretaker government and to hold elections, but they did not want Qadri to coerce the president into carrying this out. In the public eye, Qadri was and is the face of Pakistan’s security establishment, even though the Pakistan Army issued a statement distancing itself from the cleric. From the public’s perspective, his victory would mean the installation of the military or a military-backed government unrepresentative of the people and their wishes.

Ultimately, it appears that Qadri’s protest against the government was successful. He and Prime Minister Ashraf signed theIslamabad Long March Declaration, ensuring that the government will be dissolved before March 16 this year and that elections will take place ninety days after, under a caretaker government. That the movement was peaceful, a rarity for Pakistan, marked a significant victory. However, Qadri’s campaign was an ignominy for the people of Pakistan and while Qadri claims success, the Supreme Court verdict is what truly pressured the ruling party to discuss the establishment of the caretaker government with other coalition members. The people rejected Qadri’s wannabe Tahrir Square and its unruly path to force the government to act. Instead, Pakistani citizens chose to work within the framework of their constitution to protect their democracy.

About the Author

Neha Ansari is a journalist from Karachi, Pakistan. She is a second-year MALD student at The Fletcher School. Previously, she worked as a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune, an English Pakistani daily newspaper and a partnered publication of the New York Times.

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