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Protest Leader Calls for 'Peaceful Revolution' in Pakistan

Sufi cleric and leader of the Minhaj-ul-Quran religious organisation Muhammad Tahirul Qadri addresses his supporters from behind the window of an armored vehicle on the second day of protests in Islamabad, January 15, 2013.
Populist Pakistani cleric Tahir-ul Qadri has called for a peaceful revolution in the country and the dissolution of the current government. His comments came as tens of thousands of demonstrators held a second day of protests in the capital, Islamabad, and the nation's Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf.

Army helicopters on Tuesday flew overhead as tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters took over the capital's streets for second day, demanding a radical change to Pakistan's political system.

Protest leader, Tahirul Qadri, a Canadian-Pakistani Sufi cleric who burst onto the political scene last month, says the government is dysfunctional and has lost its legitimacy. He called for the dissolution of parliament.

"We are here in front of parliament house just to save our country from collapse and from complete ruin," he said. "We need substantial changes, reforms in our democratic, political and electoral system."

The firebrand Sufi cleric slammed corrupt lawmakers, calling them looters and thieves. Speaking from inside a bullet-poof truck, Qadri said the march was a democratic and constitutional way of restoring transparency and law and order to the country.

"And, just this democratic change, and political and electoral reforms is our revolution. This is green revolution. This is peaceful revolution. This is democratic revolution. This is constitutional revolution. This is lawful revolution," he said.

Speaking in Urdu to the gathering, Qadri vowed the crowds occupying the main avenue of Islamabad will not return to their homes until the government responds to their demands.

As Qadri concluded his speech, which praised both the military and judiciary, the supreme court ordered the arrest of Pakistan's Prime Minister Raja Perez Ashraf on an outstanding court case.

An enormous cheer went up from the crowd on hearing the news.

Qadri has effectively tapped into many Pakistanis' deep frustration with the government because of repeated energy shortages, corruption and unemployment. Supporter Ahsan Gilani says, if Qadri asks his followers to take their protest to parliament, they will.

"If he will say go, we are ready. We are ready. We don't worry - no fear from the bullets, guns, helicopters are coming, we have no fear, so we can do, we are ready," he said.

Qadri also addressed the thousands of security personnel protecting the capital, telling them not to listen to the government and use force against the crowds - but instead to protect the protestors.

He also is calling for more people to join the rally in the capital city that is already on high alert.

Analyst Raza Rumi, policy director of the Jinnah Institute, says the Qadri's attempt to force a dismissal of the government is potentially destabilizing.

"[There are] Many in Pakistan, and other cities and political parties, who think this is definitely not the right way forward for Pakistan, as we cannot afford this situation to escalate," said Rumi. "I think it will be very important for the government to play it wisely, and negotiate with Dr. Qadri for a settlement, whereby his crowds leave Islamabad and new elections are announced ASAP."

The Pakistan National Assembly is set to dissolve by or before March 18, when its five-year term expires and new polls are held to elect lawmakers. But Qadri's demonstrations could speed up that process.

Qadri's supporters filling the capital's main Jinnah Avenue had waited expectantly all morning for the cleric to address them. Some were pointing toward the sky, claiming they saw the word "Allah" written in the clouds.

Earlier in the day, police fired tear gas and several rounds into the air, pushing back protesters. Access to the parliament has been sealed off by metal containers, behind which are more than 2,000 police and rangers in riot gear.
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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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