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Protests out of control

Updated November 26, 2017

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MISHANDLED and underestimated by the federal government from the outset, the three-week-old protest on the outskirts of Islamabad exploded yesterday into a dangerous and destabilising national crisis.

Quite simply, the PML-N has handled every aspect of the protest — from its inception through the journey from Lahore to Islamabad to its disruptive tactics at the protest site — disastrously.

Whether legitimately concerned about potential casualties among the protesters or wrongly focused on the electoral fallout among the PML-N’s right-wing support, the government has failed to live up to its basic responsibility to protect the life and property of the citizenry.

There is no reasonable set of circumstances in which a fledgling political party, no matter how aggrieved or agitated, could be allowed to not just hold the federal capital and the fourth most populous city of the country hostage, but also trigger protests across the country.

Yesterday’s shocking events demand an urgent rethink of state policy towards such protests.

Certainly, the first step for the state must be to restore order in the country.

The federal and provincial governments and the security and intelligence apparatuses must pool together their resources to firstly prevent the countrywide protests from escalating overnight and secondly to put a definitive, as-peaceful-as-possible end to the original protest outside Islamabad.

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has stayed in the background until now on the issue of the protests, but the office he holds is the right constitutional platform from which national action is to be coordinated, across the provinces and up and down the tiers of government.

Perhaps Mr Abbasi believes that his true job description is to demonstrate loyalty to his party boss, Nawaz Sharif, but the security crisis has grown to proportions that demands initiative and leadership suited to the office of the prime minister.

Whether the National Security Committee is to be urgently convened or the chief ministers are to be gathered in Islamabad to chalk out a plan to put a firm but peaceful end to the protests, Mr Abbasi needs to demonstrate leadership in a country where there appears to be a near vacuum at the top of the decision-making tree.

Of concern, however, is a perception that the civil and military arms of the state are not coordinating with each other in their responses to the protesters. A tweet by DG ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor oddly equated the government with the protesters and called on “both sides” to find a non-violent solution to the protests.

Later, the federal government issued a notification calling for military assistance in quelling the violence in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Whatever the wider disagreements and conflict between the two sides, the PML-N government and the military leadership must set those aside to deal with the protests via a unified voice and strategy.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2017