The Pakistan army’s mediation role in ending a disruptive and deadly 20-day protest in the capital has sparked allegations that the powerful military is again going beyond its limits at a time of tense relations with the country's civilian government.
Supporters of the small Tehreek-i-Labaik party had been camped out for the last three weeks, demanding the resignation of a law minister over an omitted reference in a parliamentary bill that Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet in Islam.
The minister, Zahid Hamid, apologized for the omission, saying it was a clerical error that was later corrected.
Some say the deal Pakistan's government struck with the Islamist group Monday to end the protest represented a complete capitulation to all of the protesters’ demands – including the resignation of Hamid – and then some. The protest leader claimed the army had yielded on issues that hadn’t even been on the list of demands.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal justified the deal in a tweet, saying it “was not desirable but there was little choice because if situation had persisted another 24 hours there would be riots.”
Court and media criticism
During a hearing on the case Monday, a top judge of the Islamabad High Court, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddique, lashed out at the government and the army for not playing their constitutional roles and said the civil administration had been “stabbed in the back.”
“How long is the state going to bear all this?” Siddique asked. "Who is the army to adopt a mediator's role?"
Government officials said they were presented with a done deal that they had no choice but to sign to avoid riots that could have spun out of control.
The Dawn newspaper called the deal “a devastating blow to the legitimacy and moral standing of the government and all state institutions.”
“It is a surrender so abject that the mind is numb and the heart sinks,” Dawn said in an editorial. “In one brief page and six gut-wrenching points, the state of Pakistan has surrendered its authority to a mob that threatened to engulf the country in flames.”
In addition to raising questions about who really holds power in a country where the army has staged coups and otherwise interfered repeatedly in civilian affairs, the end of the protest was in line with Pakistan’s increasingly conservative path in which all religions are being marginalized behind mainstream Islam with a blasphemy law used to suppress dissent.
Khadim Hussain, a Pakistani author on militancy, told VOA Deewa that the military’s direct role in defusing the Islamists’ protest shows its political ambitions and “shows its motive of destabilizing the civilian government.”
Religious parties protest
The protest began when members of three religious political parties began a sit-in at the Faizabad Interchange, which connects the two busiest highways between Islamabad, the capital, and the garrison city of Rawalpindi. The roads were closed, and the main bus service was shut down.
The protest focused on a change to election law that had required candidates to “declare an oath” on the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat – the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad. The words “on oath” were omitted in what government officials called a clerical error, and they were restored.
After the demonstrators defied officials’ calls and court orders to disperse, the Islamabad High Court ordered their eviction “by any means necessary.”
Subsequent negotiations failed, and the protesters were given until Saturday morning to leave.
When the deadline passed, the government ordered a police operation to clear the area that left up to six dead and dozens injured. Protests broke out in other cities and more protesters rushed to Faizabad. Most private TV networks and social media sites were shut down.
The government then called the army for help, but it refused to use force. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Qamar Bajwa told Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi that public trust in the army “can't be compromised for little gains." He then became the chief negotiator, spawning the agreement and the end of most of the unrest Monday.
The terms of the agreement included blanket immunity for all those arrested during the crackdown, compensation for the protesters and public funds to pay for the property damage that they caused.
“The government has been humiliated and the military leadership has further improved its standing with sections of the public for helping end the protests — but at what cost to the country and its people?” the Dawn editorial asked. "A menacing precedent has been set by the protesters that will surely embolden others and invite copycats. It is no exaggeration to suggest that no one is safe.”