The government geared up for a possible showdown with religious hardliners camped out on the federal capital's busy Faizabad Interchange after the Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Friday ordered the district administration to take all necessary steps to clear the area latest by Saturday morning.
A 10pm deadline for Friday night given to protesters to disperse lapsed without much done on either side.
All hospitals in the city were ordered to cancel doctors and paramedical staff's leaves and ask them to be present on duty till further instructions.
One thousand personnel were requested from the Punjab Rangers "to perform duty along with police,".
The district administration had also requisitioned water tankers and fire brigades to prepare for any eventuality.
At least eight ambulances, along with paramedical staff; two fire engines; and three water bowsers would be at the disposal of the district magistrate from Nov 18, an official letter read.
There were fears that a crackdown would have serious repercussions, with the government hinting that some of the protesters were armed and would not shy from resorting to violence.
"We know that there are armed men and we know that there are people with them [the protesters] who are waiting to provoke chaos," the interior minister said in a press conference on the matter late Friday evening. "It is incumbent on the leaders of this protest to make sure nothing untoward happens."
"Whoever challenges the writ of the government will be dealt with," he promised. "We have the capability, but we would rather avoid violence."
A couple of hours before the 10pm deadline expired, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal made what seemed to be a last-ditch effort to appeal to the better nature of the protesters.
Presenting himself as the son of 'exceptionally devout' Muslims, he pleaded that the sit-in, which has disrupted life in Islamabad and Rawalpindi for the past week or so, be called off as it went against the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Saying that "international lobbies" would "use pictures of the protests to further their agenda", Iqbal asked the protesters if they wanted their actions to hurt the state of Pakistan.
"The CPEC Joint Coordination Committee's session is scheduled for Nov 20-21. What image of the capital city do we wish to portray? Do we want that the investor who is coming in should run away?" he asked.
"I assure that there is no shortcoming in the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat laws and a gap that had been created after 2002 has also been filled forever," he said. "Therefore, there is no reason this sit-in should continue and be allowed to disrupt people's lives."
"I appreciate your sentiment: you are here to safeguard your love for Prophet Muhammad. However, this country, its parliament, government and armed forces are here to safeguard the finality of prophethood," he assured.
"Our faith is just as strong as yours. In light of the Quran and Prophet Muhammad's teachings, I ask you to end this sit in immediately," he said.
"Do not test the patience of the people of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Obey the court's orders. We are still open to negotiations with you. We are all Muslims, and our faith in the Prophet Muhammad and Islam is just as strong as yours. Do not question it," he said as he appealed to the protesters. "Leave the judging to God," he repeated at various points during his conference.
"Else we will be forced to take the step the court has ordered us to take," he said.
"I hope that we will be able to end this situation with talks and those who claim to love the Prophet will not instigate their followers towards violence," he said.
"It is only the enemies of Pakistan who want to create disruptions in the country," he said.
A festering problem
The protesters belong to various 'religious' parties, including the Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan (ST), and have been calling for the sacking of Law Minister Zahid Hamid and strict action against those behind the amendment to the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat oath in the Elections Act 2017 ─ which had earlier been deemed a 'clerical error' and restored to its original form on Thursday, November 16.
To pressure the government on its demands, TLY has occupied the Faizabad Bridge which connects Rawalpindi and Islamabad through the Islamabad Expressway and Murree Road, both of which are the busiest thoroughfares in the twin cities.
IHC Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, who issued the order to clear the area earlier in the day, made the decision while hearing a petition filed by citizen Abdul Qayyum. Islamabad Deputy Commissioner retired captain Mushtaq Ahmed and the deputy inspector general operations were also present in court today.
Taking note of the difficulties faced by citizens due to blockage of the major artery, the court ordered the district administration to ensure the dispersal of protesters, whether through peaceful means or by the use of force.
The court also permitted the district administration to exercise its authority and request the deployment of the Punjab Rangers or the Frontier Constabulary, if needed.
Justice Siddiqui, in passing the order, had observed that Islam does not permit any harm coming to women, children or the elderly, even in times of war.
The judge — who is known for his religious zeal — said that as the protesters' demands had already been accepted by the parliament and executives, they had no more reason to continue protesting.
Justice Siddiqui asked why the district administration had been unsuccessful in exercising its authority to end the protest. He pointed out that there is already a designated area for people to register their protests in the capital ─ the Democracy and Speech Corner.
Any citizen who wishes to exercise their right to freedom of speech must not inconvenience other citizens, the court said.
'Protesters given until 10pm to end sit-in'
After the order was passed, the DIG Operations, senior superintendent police and other officers attended a meeting of high-level administration officials chaired by DC Mushtaq Ahmed, where Additional Inspector General Special Branch Muhammad Ilyas gave a briefing.
The officials decided that a final warning must be issued to the protesters to vacate the Interchange before a clearance operation takes place, officials said.
The district administration said a written warning will be issued giving the protesters until 10pm on Friday to end their sit-in. If they do not do so, only then will an operation take place.
The DC further said an operation will take place in the morning, as it cannot take place at night.
The police, FC and Rangers will be deployed to assist in the operation, he added.
Fed up with the public response in the twin cities, the cold response from the federal government, and intermittent spells of rain which started Tuesday, the protesting clerics had taken to petitioning the IHC for "execution" of their demands.
Their earlier demands, most of which have been taken back now, included the removal of Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid and Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, blasphemy accused Asiya Bibi’s execution, dismissal of cases against religious leaders, and the removal of various extremist clerics' names from the Fourth Schedule.
Justice Siddiqui had on Thursday heard the petition submitted by TLY, and subsequently asked for a report compiled by a PML-N committee probing the controversial amendment to the oath to be made public so that "the culprits so determined therein, may very kindly be proceed against under the relevant laws."
Earlier this week, Justice Siddiqui, while hearing a petition submitted by Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat supporter Allah Wasaya against the same issue, had ordered the repeal of all amendments in sections pertaining to the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat oath in the Elections Act 2017.