Pakistan on the edge of chaos

Pakistan on the edge of chaos

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (Photo by Reuters)

Tension is mounting in Islamabad with the 48-hour deadline issued by the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JuI-F) for Prime Minister Imran Khan to step down ending on Sunday evening. Pakistan’s law enforcement personnel are gearing up for any eventuality. Should the roughly 80,000 protestors led by JuI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman attempt to enter the capital’s ‘Red Zone’, where government buildings and the diplomatic enclave are located, a violent faceoff is likely. The protesters include JuI-F activists, other Islamists and madrasa students.

Members of the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Awami National Party have participated in the Islamabad rally but could keep their distance should the JuI-F press for a confrontation. Rehman launched the so-called ‘Freedom March’ at Karachi on October 27. He has called for Khan's resignation, accusing him of 'rigging' the 2018 general elections, governing poorly, and failing to address Pakistan’s economic woes. However, Pakistan’s well-being may not be Rehman’s prime concern. His party performed dismally in the parliamentary elections and his ongoing march is aimed at propelling himself and his party into political relevance. Ironically, Rehman has drawn inspiration for the march from Khan himself. In 2014, Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was then in opposition, launched a sit-in in Islamabad that lasted for four months. Although it did not result in the fall of the Nawaz Sharif government, it was effective in boosting the PTI’s political fortunes.

The government has made it clear that Khan will not step down. It has been talking to JuI-F leaders. Interestingly, the JuI-F did not raise any demands at these talks. Apparently, the two sides only discussed the venue of the sit-in. With the deadline ending, the protesters could attempt to storm the Red Zone. Just a few kilometers and barricades of shipping containers separate them from the Red Zone. In 2014, Khan and his supporters breached similar barricades to reach the Pakistan parliament. Rehman scored an early victory last week when the Islamabad High Court declared that there is nothing illegal about the march and it should be allowed. The standoff is getting serious. The government has closed schools, suspended public transport and shut down internet services in some areas. It is clear that the government is not taking any chances and will not hesitate to use force should the protesters storm the Red Zone or indulge in violence.

Rehman is trapped in a corner. Having reached Islamabad, what can he do? He will be looking for a face-saving exit. Will he back down as Khan did in 2014 by citing security concerns and national interest? Or will he opt for an all-out confrontation? The latter will be bloody.