ISLAMABAD — This week a prominent cleric-turned-politician returned to Pakistan, vowing to organize anti-government protests.
Canada-based Tahir-ul Qadri has pledged a “peaceful revolution against a corrupt democracy.” But the sudden homecoming has fueled speculation that Pakistan’s powerful military may be using him as a proxy in efforts to sideline the political government.
Widely known as a pro-army cleric, Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek is one of the country’s most organized political parties.
Its base of support is rooted in Qadri’s large following from the vast network of mosques and religious centers he set up across Pakistan.
Last year, he led mass rallies against Pakistan’s previous government. Now he has returned to lead what his spokesman has called an “Arab spring” style revolt and bring a new government to power that can improve accountability and push through reforms.
Seen as backed by army
Qadri’s ability to quickly organize mass rallies and openly denounce the civilian government has long been seen as evidence that he is backed by the army as a way of sidelining civilian leaders.
“Do you think that Tahir-ul Qadri would be able to make the kinds of statements that he is making and these are the kinds of activities that he is doing in Canada where he is a dual national? Do you think they will put up with this?” asked Daniyal Aziz, a lawmaker in the ruling party, rhetorically.
On Monday, Qadri was scheduled to arrive in Islamabad on an Emirates flight from Dubai, but authorities diverted the plane with nearly 300 passengers to Lahore, citing security concerns.
The move outraged thousands of his supporters waiting outside the airport in the capital, leading to violent clashes with police. It also triggered protests elsewhere in the country.
After several hours on the tarmac, Qadri eventually agreed to deplane but vowed to lead nationwide anti-government rallies to avenge the deaths of around a dozen supporters killed a week ago when Lahore police opened fire on a crowd outside Qadri’s residence.
That crackdown promoted severe criticism of the Nawaz Sharif government. Monday's plane incident has intensified it.
Raza Rumi, a television anchor and editor, said the overreaction by the government stems from the troubled democratic history of Pakistan, where the military has seized power through repeated coups.
“Pakistan’s history has been that when there is a confrontation like this, the civil-military relationship is going down then the military sort of reacts or comes back with a kind of political engineering that attacks the incumbent government, weakens it and creates an environment in public opinion where the population the electorate is ready for a political change,” Rumi said.
Widely dubbed as "self-styled revolutionary," last year Qadri briefly returned to Pakistan to lead a similar protest against the previous government.
Thousands of his supporters staged a three-day sit-in demonstration in the heart of Islamabad that dispersed peacefully. However, this time Qadri has vowed not to leave Pakistan until he accomplishes his mission.
"God willing," he said, "it will be a movement of revolution and this peaceful war will be fought until miseries of the poor are ended, oppressions against the innocent are avenged and corruption is eliminated."
There is growing public concern over the country’s ongoing battle against Taliban militants. But ruling party lawmaker Aziz links Qadri’s sudden return to Pakistan to the ongoing treason trial of former military President Pervez Musharraf.
“For the first time in Pakistan that two things are happening at the same time that democracy has shifted through a peaceful election from one party to another and now after many years of these kinds of episodes are taking place, there is also a treason trial underway," Aziz said. "The [army] establishment has not minced its words on its feelings regarding the trial that’s ongoing."
Opposition lawmaker Asad Umar disagreed, saying ruling party members are raising concerns over military interference in politics to distract the public from the failings of their own long-promised political and economic reforms.
“If it (army interference) is genuinely being done, it is a major, major issue," Umar said.
"Literally, there is nothing can be bigger than that - come to the parliament, go to the courts, use the constitution means available to you. You cannot run a slanderous media campaign against the important state institutions. That’s just not the right way of running the country democratically,” Umar said.
Discontent with the Sharif government has grown in recent months because of nationwide power shortages that have crippled economic activities in Pakistan.
Moreover, critics said that a lack of clarity on how to tackle a deadly Islamist insurgency at home and reported differences with the military in terms of dealing with neighboring Afghanistan and India are primary sources of civil-military tensions.
Observers are unsure whether Qadri’s homecoming is meant to fuel these tensions and whether other opposition political parties would want to join a man accused of promoting “undemocratic” forces to take charge of the national affairs.