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Tahirul Qadri gestures upon his arrival at a protest march in Islamabad on early Jan 15, 2013. — Photo by AFP

ISLAMABAD: To Pakistan's ruling party, a firebrand cleric camped outside parliament with thousands of protesters is looking more and more like the harbinger of their worst fear: a plan by the military to engineer a “soft coup”.

In their eyes, Muhammad Tahirul Qadri seems like the perfect candidate for such a mission. A practised orator who has electrified crowds with his anti-corruption rhetoric, the doctor of Islamic law leapt into action to back the last power grab by the army in 1999.

The aim this time, some politicians suspect, is to use Qadri to bring down the current administration and provide a pretext for the army to hand pick a caretaker cabinet.

“What we are seeing is dangerous and evidence that unconstitutional third forces are up to their tricks again,” said Mahmood Khan Achakzai, a politician who has been a frequent critic of the army's record of interfering in politics.

The military has denied any link to Qadri, and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has built up a reputation for standing more aloof from politics than predecessors who have not hesitated to dismiss civilian governments. Pakistan has been ruled by the military for more than half of its 65 years as an independent nation.

Critics note, furthermore, that the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which has a long record of confrontation with the military, has often been quick to portray itself as a victim of bullying by the military to distract attention from its shortcomings.

But the timing of Qadri's return from six years of living in Canada, just a few months before elections are due, and his role in supporting a 1999 coup by former army chief Pervez Musharraf have nonetheless rung alarm bells.

Qadri, who led a convoy of buses carrying thousands of protesters into Islamabad on Monday has repeatedly demanded that the army should have a say in the formation of an interim administration that is due to oversee the run-up to elections in May.

“You meet army officers in the night; I'm asking that you consult with them on the caretaker set up under the sunlight,” Qadri said in a speech on Tuesday in remarks clearly addressed to the government.

The PPP's fears over the potential for military meddling centre on the impending formation of a caretaker cabinet.

Pakistan passed a constitutional amendment last year that requires the government and opposition to agree on the composition of the temporary administration.

The amendment is designed to prevent any ruling party exploiting the advantages of incumbency to manipulate elections by using state power to skew the playing field.  The PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), the main opposition party, have spent months negotiating a list of mutually acceptable names for the transitional cabinet, including a number of politicians noted for resisting military rule.

“The PPP has lost three generations of leaders fighting against dictatorships,” said a senior member of the PPP.

“You think we will give up now? We will take up this battle at all levels.”


Military officers privately do little to conceal their contempt for the PPP, whose government has been unable to end militant violence, bring down sharp food price inflation or get the economy on track since it took power in March, 2008.

They are also dismissive of the PML-N.

One officer, speaking in a personal capacity, said the army had no desire to seize power but might be forced to play a role as mediator between political factions if the cleric's protests trigger a prolonged crisis.

“If this gets worse, then the army may have to intervene (as a moderator),” he told Reuters.

After years of suspicion and ill-will between the generals and the PPP-led coalition led by President Asif Ali Zardari, Qadri's protests have seemed to signal a shift in the political landscape, with unpredictable consequences.

“We can't say who is behind him. But all we know is that he can't pull this off without backing from someone,” Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the veteran leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam – Fazl said on television.

The political temperature soared even higher on Tuesday when Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in connection with a corruption case.

Authorities have yet to carry out his instructions. An aide to Ashraf said the military was behind this move as well, but the chief justice is known to be independent-minded.

If Qadri succeeds in bringing down the government, then a man whose name had faded from the limelight since he left Pakistan for Canada in 2006 will have sabotaged the PPP's bid to be the first civilian government to complete a full term.

That would undermine Pakistan's struggle to bury the legacy of decades of military dictatorship by building institutions strong enough to resolve the nuclear-armed country's multiple crises.

The military has a track record of picking interim administrations in past decades that have then overstepped their mandates by hounding the army's political opponents or manipulating elections.

Army officers in Bangladesh, which was part of Pakistan until it broke away in 1971, have used a similar approach to appoint a technocratic government to implement reforms.

But some commentators and Western diplomats argue that times have changed and the military has lost the appetite for embroiling itself in struggles with increasingly assertive political parties and a hyperactive media.

"The military has no interest in disrupting the path to elections: in fact their interest is the opposite, supporting the transfer of power from one elected government to another, which is a political milestone in Pakistan's history," said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington.

Much will depend on whether Qadri has enough rhetorical firepower left to persuade his followers to maintain their protest, or whether the government decides to order the police to apply pressure to disperse them.

"There is nothing wrong with raising your concerns and protesting," said Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira. "But if you try to hold the capital hostage and disrupt the lives of its people, the law will take its course."

Comments (39) Closed

sja Jan 17, 2013 07:33am
By a DOCTOR OF ISLAMIC LAW --- his orders supersede all tenets of democracy and for that matter INTERNATIONAL AND LOCAL LAWS. ONLY A DOCTOR OF LAW can practice the law as he wishes when he has the best of both worlds ---- CANADA AND PAKISTAN and the CROWN of the BRITISH COMMONWEALTH. POWER and some super power to order even the QUEEN of England cannot dissolve the parliament as this scholar and the doctor of laws can and want to do in the midst of infants, women, girls, youth and old alike ---------------- under what LAWS of decency?????
Sardar Ali Jan 17, 2013 11:39am
Based on what we received at the hands of corrupt politicians (some of whom can't even speak their native language properly... just like our corrupt PM Raja Ashraf), I think Army rule is better. However, this should be our last resort because Army does not know how to run the country. If they get involved in running Govt then who will protect us from our cunning enemies? What Dr.Qadri is saying that we should stop inducting the same corrupt politician back into the system. It has become clear that under the table agreement between Zardaari and NawazSharif will bring back the same failed democracy. Let's keep our fingers crossed. Hope Army takes same control here and create an opportunity for fair elections based on .Dr. Qadri's recommendations. I know our Army is sincere. They have seen how our politicians chopped off one wing of our beloved country which is now Bangladesh. With the same sincerity, they can ensure elections are held right after this govt finishes its tenure. These my my 2 cents. Thanks for sharing...
Qazi Hassan Jan 17, 2013 01:59pm
With this article, DAWN has proved beyond any shred of doubt that it can go to any distance to protect the interest of the establishment that has played with Pakistan inside and out.
Neptune Jan 17, 2013 10:09am
The answer to imperfect democracy is more democracy, not back door entrance of army. Was Musharraf and his army rule any better? Did he not steal money?
Saeed Jan 17, 2013 03:46pm
Who is stopping traders of Blue Area to open their businesses? Qadri protesters are not violent. They may be even good for your business if you open your business.
Maqsood Ahmed Jan 17, 2013 04:23pm
Democracy has its own way of correcting itself. It is more an institution than persons and it should be looked at it that way only.You can only tell a political party what kind of persons it should issue tickets by using your most important right: your vote. Period. Corrupt and inefficient people are weed out through this process. The most important institutions that can keep the elected people in line are Judiciary ( that interprets the constitution and tells right from the wrong) and media ( that educates the masses). Everybody else would be better staying off and should mind their own business, if at all they think that they have any and are capable of anything to do.
Muhammad Farooq Jan 17, 2013 05:50am
This is unfortunate for democracy in Pakistan that efforts are being made to change the government in complete disregard of constitution.
Akram Jan 17, 2013 12:32pm
but we now know the musharraf coup was simply a power struggle between nawaz sharif and musharraf. I originally supported it too, I now realise it was a mistake, even though the sharifs are a waste of space, they were the elected government, who elected musharraf? no one. The army needs to stop interfering in politics and let Pakistani democracy evolve beyond the bhutto and sharif families. It will not happen by repeated army intervention.
rav Jan 17, 2013 11:03am
Pakistan is great country. Specially Army is greatest let army rule the nation.
Kik Jan 17, 2013 11:56am
This is all very good for freedom of speech, right to protest etc etc. But who is responsible for the loss of our daily livelihood for us traders located in Blue Area and in Islamabad in general. We have not been able to open our businesses for the fourth day running. Some of us have to work for a living. Not everyone has disciples in Canada and the UK sending us dollars.
Sahib Jan 18, 2013 12:32am
Top Army generals are also corrupt.
shahidmasud12 Jan 18, 2013 06:04pm
Government should order Qadri to reimburse the money it spend on providing security to the Long Marchers .
Sardar Ali Jan 17, 2013 08:50am
I concur with you 100%. Well said.
Sardar Ali Jan 17, 2013 11:29am
First of, the way you addressed Dr. Qaadri shows your demeanor to Islam which teaches respect for your elders and even to your younger. I suspect you are a muslim but if you are then definitely you are one of those lost souls who offers prayers only for Eids and that's about it. For arguments' sake even if we think Dr.Qadri is not a good man but please listen to his demands and some of the favorable comments by fellow commentators on this board. This will enlighten you. Lastly, as a piece of friendly advice, never address your elders in a derogatory way.. even if they are your enemies. May Allah make us all a true practicing muslim, and give us time to understand Islam and the teachings of our beloved Prophet Muhammad S.A.W. Amin
Jamshed Khan Jan 17, 2013 01:21pm
He probably did, but nothing of the order of Zardaris, Bhuttos and Sharifs.
Prashant Jan 17, 2013 12:02pm
Army is the greatest institution in Pakistan.
Usman Jan 17, 2013 05:09am
Without any facts, article is nothing but a conspiracy theory
Gandhian Jan 17, 2013 09:07pm
Millions of overseas Pakistanis like me, including our women and children, have remained in extreme anguish because of the ongoing hardship and impending thread to the safety of little children, women, men, young and old of the long march. Because all the Pakistanis are equally dearer to us irrespective of their religious, racial and political affiliations. If any tragedy would have happened to the participants PPP and Coalition would have not only lost the support of millions and millions of overseas Pakistanis but many times more within the Country. But with their great humanitarian and truly democratic approach and solution the PPP leadership as well as the Coalition leaders have won immense praise and cheers from their most worried and anguished countrymen,even from their hitherto opponents, all over the world. Those of opposition parties giving priority to their political vengeance and selfish interest by exposing their heartless and callous indifference till the end of the episode, have only been the great looser. Even from those who have always been their supporters, but who first being a Pakistani of human compassion. I salute to the participants of the historic peaceful procession ,for their unprecedented courage, patience and fortitude, I esteem each and every single participant of the long march sit-in procession much greater than all and any present political leader of our beloved Pakistan. With your so long, so patient, so peaceful, so disciplined and so democratic procession, and by your 5 days and nights continuous slogans against extremists, terroriists and corruption you have shown the true peaceful face of Pakistan and Islam to the entire world? The entire Nation is proud of you. God bless Pakistan 2 1
Inqalab Jan 17, 2013 07:24am
Every Pakistani (except Muslim League) welcomed Gen Mushraf's coup because the country was in similar situation. It was not just Qadri, the BB, IK and MFR all welcomed him. If you listen to ppl from this March they are real Pakistani who wants real change.
Hakeem Jan 17, 2013 09:42am
because the Bhutto khandaan and the Sharif khandaan have it all figured out haven't they? When will you wake up and start thinking for yourself you sheep !
Moon Jan 17, 2013 09:33am
A corrupt nation cannot be changed unless there something will happen, like bloodshed, a just and strict ruler
Stranger Jan 17, 2013 12:47pm
He seems rich and bored.
sja Jan 18, 2013 12:40am
What is your point -------""""-it is an automatic invitation for the so-called
Nasah (USA) Jan 17, 2013 06:27pm
There is no army backing behind Qadri -- he is himself a one man army chief, president, prime minister, election commissioner, caretaker government. He just wanted some attention -- he did not get in Canada -- he got it from Zardari. Qadri is a happy Canadian now. Will come back next election time.
r.s.soni Jan 17, 2013 10:45am
sir, general kyani the coas of pakistan army says he is professional upright soldier and does not want to interfere in the political process. why this moulvi wants goverenment should consult army in the formation of care taker goverenment ?
AC1960 Jan 17, 2013 08:48am
In democracy,normally through elections the change of leadership who governs the country happens. Military is not a solution to this. Democracy is a process and only through experience with its ups and downs the country/society can develop. This is what happened in Europe.
Sjbhatti Jan 17, 2013 12:10pm
If government delegation fails, nation would welcome Qadri to takeover parliament.
Julie C Jan 17, 2013 08:08am
If a government delivers corruption instead of democracy, and does not uphold the constitution, it loses the mandate (and moral authority) to govern and ought to resign to protect democracy and to show respect for the constitution. Otherwise, it is an automatic invitation for the so-called "undemocratic and unconstitutional" forces to come in and fill the void.
Sunny Boye Jan 17, 2013 12:11pm
He aint a maulvi...He is a socialist...People from his Minhaj are the beneficiaries of his social cause...Afterall he is the only maulvi (if u say) who provides education in english medium model schools... with 35% quota for poor and deprived ppl paying no fee at all..
Hina Jan 17, 2013 07:34am
Is it that corrupt government survive crying on constitution. It is already disregard to constitution to be in geovernance when having even doubt on personnel integrity. Nations cannot progress or survive with dishonest leaders even if it is discssed in public domain, since public have no confidence and this breeds problems.
Qazi Hassan Jan 17, 2013 01:58pm
Not everyone has businesses in Blue Area. Most have lost their livelihood and that is why they are there. Obviously you can not think beyond your nose.
pathanoo Jan 17, 2013 07:45am
Pakistanis need not worry too much about this Dr of Islamic Law, Dr. Tahir Ul Qadri. He is a flash in the pan just like Imran Khan. He has no solution to the real problems of Pakistan. He is a demogaug who is getting his fifteen minutes of fame on TV and soon the Pakistani people will change the channel (his).
malik Jan 17, 2013 03:41pm
I agree with Tahir for holding a peacefull rally against the corrupted family and friends of Zardari.
imran Jan 17, 2013 09:44am
time for some responsible journalism rather than giving air to conspiracy theories
SK Jan 17, 2013 02:25pm
Why are you so keep to surrender your democratic right to vote out a corrupt government to someone else? What is the guarantee that person will also not turn out to be corrupt. Where will you stand then having already surrendered your right?
Jamshed Khan Jan 18, 2013 02:30pm
After the drama Mr Qadri played, he carries no respect.
H L Jan 17, 2013 02:18pm
I agree with you but only to level of Dr Qadri's level, based on the history. He is not political leader nor I believe he has any potential for that. About Imran, he has a long proven history of matching his words. And we all know what have other parties like MQM, PPP ,PML ' (s all of them) etc.
Sardar Ali Jan 17, 2013 09:13am
Well said. I complete agree with you. Wish IK joins his march and we can have a real 'Inqilaab'.
Sardar Ali Jan 17, 2013 09:01am
Sorry sja, I do not agree with you. All Dr.Qadri is trying to do is to ensure that the same badly failed democracy does not make its way back to power. These corrupt politicians have already put some many irreparable dents to Pakistan economy that we are dependent on loans from other countries, our industries are closed because of power issues, our people are dying of hunger while these plunderers are moving money overseas. Our own president Mr.Zardaari is the biggest thief who is hiding billions in Swiss banks. Based on these facts, I think no one should have an iota of doubt that the same democracy should not be given another chance. Only people with clean characters should uphold the sanctity of the Parliament and our sacred country Pakistan. Long live Pakistan and the People of Pakistan. Sardar Ali