Saad Rizvi — a political dark horse?

Even though the young TLP chief remains untested in the political arena, his inherited street power can prove to be a game changer.
Published February 1, 2024

Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) chief Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi has emerged as an intriguing figure in the country’s political landscape. His ability to wield influence became evident when his 2021 arrest triggered three days of widespread protests across the nation.

In 2015, the TLP emerged in response to widespread protests against the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, an elite force commando convicted of the assassination of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Saad, a founding member of the party alongside his father Khadim Hussain Rizvi, played a pivotal role in its establishment. He subsequently served as the party’s deputy secretary-general.

Rooted in the Sufi Barelvi school of thought, the TLP proudly identifies itself as the guardian of Prophet Muhammad’s honour, vehemently advocating for stringent penalties against those who disrespect the Prophet’s sanctity and finality.

TLP was initially perceived as a marginal political entity until the 2018 elections delivered an unexpected revelation. In a surprising turn of events, the party secured the position of the third-largest vote bank among the 14 National Assembly seats in Lahore, trailing behind only PML-N and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). On the national level, it bagged 2.19 million votes.

Saad assumed the mantle of TLP chief in 2020, inheriting the legacy from his father, Khadim. According to party sources, there was opposition from some senior members of the party to the decision of the 18-member Majlis-i-Shura to appoint the then 26-year old Saad as the new leader. They objected that he was too young for the responsibility and on top of it they opposed the hereditary basis of his selection. However the leadership issue was promptly settled.

Soon after taking the top position, he started to re-organise the party and began preparations to contest elections.

As the new leader, he asserted the party’s influence and reminded the government of their demand to remove the French ambassador over blasphemy allegations by February 17, 2021.

However the government refused to keep it’s end of the agreement, and on February 11 a new one was signed, extending the deadline until April 20, 2021. According to former prime minister Imran Khan, it was decided that the government would take the matter to Parliament before the last date.

On April 12, Saad was apprehended under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) Ordinance 1960 on charges of inciting his followers to take the law into their own hands. The arrest triggered violent protests, resulting in casualties and injuries nationwide. Subsequently, the government banned TLP and imposed a social media blockade.

In a tumultuous sequence of events, TLP took 11 policemen hostage, leading to negotiations with the government. The protests concluded on April 20, with a National Assembly session addressing the expulsion of the French ambassador.

TLP chief spent the next seven months in jail until Lahore High Court ordered his release in October 2021 but the government did not move ahead with the order, planning instead to take the case to the Supreme Court.

The delay to release the TLP chief from jail led to initiation of another long march, Namoos-i-Risalat, by the party to Islamabad on Oct 22. Five police officials were martyred and scores from both sides received injuries in clashes in Lahore and Gujranwala as the marchers moved towards the capital on the Grand Trunk Road.

After ten days of protest, the party and the government reached an agreement. Following that Saad was released after the withdrawal of a reference filed in the Supreme Court’s federal review board regarding his detention and the removal of his name from the Fourth Schedule — a list of proscribed individuals who are suspected of terrorism or sectarianism under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), 1997.

In December 2021, giving an exclusive interview to Newsweek Pakistan, Saad said: “No opposition will be able to function and no party will be able to make government without the support of the TLP,” as he went on to claim that his party’s vote banks in Punjab and Sindh had experienced a massive boost since the last general elections.

In May 2023, the party started its “Pakistan Bachao March”, led by it’s young leader from Karachi to Islamabad. However, whilst the protesters were camping near Sarai Alamgir tehsil of Gujrat district, TLP’s top leadership engaged with the government to end the march.

The protest came to an end after the government and the party signed a 12-point deal. The deal included conditions like speedy trials of the blasphemy accused, booking them under the Anti-terrorism Act 1997 in addition to the Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code and blocking blasphemous content on social media. The agreement was touted as TLP’s biggest success by it’s supporters and constituents.

The 2024 elections will be Saad’s first election stint. He will be contesting from NA-50 of Attock and NA-160 from Bahawalnagar-I.

Key stances

Saad Hussain Rizvi positions himself as a defender of Khatm-i-Nabuwat and Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, integral components of the country’s blasphemy laws.

He called for the expulsion of the French ambassador and a comprehensive trade boycott with the nation.

In an insightful exchange with Newsweek magazine, Saad expressed a commitment to gender inclusivity within TLP, stating a willingness to allocate up to 50 per cent representation for women. “We not only aim to encourage women to join the party through reserved seats but also intend to include them in general seats,” he affirmed.

Regarding the events of May 9, Saad strongly censured the actions of PTI leaders. However, he took a firm stand against the arbitrary arrest of youth and the initiation of trials in military courts.

Header artwork by Abdul Sattar Abbasi