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tahir-ul-qadri, long march, protest
Supporters of Tahir-ul Qadri wave Pakistani national flags on the third day of a protest rally in Islamabad. -Photo by AFP

ISLAMABAD: Tears roll down Mohammad Zubair's cheeks as he speaks about the misery of being jobless in Pakistan, cursing the ruling elite and pinning his hopes for a better future on a populist cleric.

“I have travelled to Islamabad from a far-flung village, with empty pockets in the hope that the bad days are over,” Zubair told AFP, shivering without warm winter clothing in the capital, set in the foothills of the Himalayas.

An estimated 25,000 to 50,000 people have poured into Islamabad from across the country, devoted followers of moderate preacher Tahir-ul Qadri who is calling for the government to step down and radical reforms.

It is the largest protest in the capital since the Pakistan People's Party won elections in 2008, ending a decade of military rule and forming what in March will be the country's first civilian government to complete a term in office.

But the protesters see that as no achievement. In the last five years the economy has flagged, the energy crisis has deteriorated, a Taliban-led insurgency has killed thousands and sectarian violence has worsened.

Coming from all walks of life, but mostly the disenfranchised, they bat aside conspiracy theories that Qadri is a pawn of the military to wrest back power and believe wholeheartedly that the government is to blame for the problems.

“I see a ray of hope in Qadri...he can wipe my tears and put balm on the nation's wounds,” said Zubair, sipping a hot cup of tea, given to him by one of his fellow protestors.

Like millions in Pakistan's emerging middle class, he graduated from college but has struggled to find a job.

He says corruption is so blatant that when he applied for a job in the police, they openly demanded 800,000 rupees ($8,000) as a bribe.

When the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on allegations of corruption in energy deals, the news was met with jubilation.

“This is great news and we hope to get rid of the monsters and vampires, who have been sucking our blood for ages,” said Mohammad Tariq, who travelled with Qadri on a 38-hour journey from the eastern city of Lahore.

Islamabad is a purpose-built city created only in the late 1960s. Most of its residents are wealthy diplomats, mandarins and foreigners, who leave at the weekends and consider their true homes to be elsewhere. “It is the first time in my life this kind of gathering has reached this place,” said Saeed Faisal Naqvi, wearing a leather jacket.

Qadri addresses the crowd from a transparent, bullet-proof box and uses a trailer to rest. There are ambulances from his charity on hand, water trucks and public toilets housed in shipping containers.

As security forces have relaxed their presence, vendors have done a roaring trade in spicy crackers, peanuts, corn on the cob and sweets. Other stalls sell aromatic lentils to demonstrators at subsidised rates.

Mini dispensaries have also been set up in vehicles from Qadri's religious and education movement, handing out free medicines.

Men, women and even some children seem undeterred about spending two nights, camped out on the hard tarmac of Jinnah Avenue that leads to parliament – men on one side; women and children on the other.

Carpets, rugs and blankets have been laid out for protestors to catch up on sleep, snuggled up in quilts and blankets, using their bags as pillows and doing their best to shake off the cold.

“We have a cause to fight for and inhospitable weather will not shake our resolve. We will stay here in the open as long as our leader wants,” said Fatima Firdous, a science student from Lahore.

“I am more concerned about our rights and the right to education, which have been denied to us by the feudals and the elite class. It is time to throw them out of the corridors of power and devolve powers to the grass roots' level,” she said.