Pakistani officials struck a deal late Thursday with a fiery Muslim cleric to end four days of anti-government protests by thousands of his supporters that largely paralyzed the capital and put intense pressure on the government.
The demonstration came at a time when the government is facing challenges on several fronts, including from the country’s top court. The Supreme Court ordered the arrest of the prime minister earlier in the week in connection with a corruption case, but the government’s anti-corruption chief refused to act on Thursday, citing a lack of evidence.
Tahir-ul-Qadri, the 61-year-old cleric who led the protests in Islamabad, galvanized many Pakistanis with his message alleging that the nation’s politicians are corrupt thieves who care more about lining their pockets than dealing with the country’s pressing problems, such as electricity shortages, high unemployment and deadly attacks by Islamic militants.
He demanded electoral reform to prevent corrupt politicians from standing for elections.
But his demand that the government be dissolved and replaced by a military-backed caretaker administration raised concerns that he was being used by the nation’s powerful army to try to delay parliamentary elections expected this spring.
Qadri has denied any connection to the army, which has a history of toppling civilian governments in military coups and has done little to hide its disdain for the country’s politicians.
Qadri returned late last year from Canada and became a significant political force almost overnight, leveraging support from a large cadre of religious followers in Pakistan and abroad.
Tens of thousands of people responded to his call to hold a protest in Islamabad and camped out in the main avenue running through the city, huddling beneath blankets at night to ward off the cold.
But Qadri was left politically isolated Wednesday when a large group of opposition parties collectively announced that they would not support the protest and opposed any movement that threatened democracy.
Their response and suggestions by the country’s interior minister that the government would use force to disperse the protesters might have factored into the cleric’s decision to strike a deal, which appeared to fall short of his demands.
The protesters also were being drenched by heavy rain.
The government agreed to meet with Qadri after he announced that Thursday would be the last day of the protest while warning that he would let the protesters decide how to respond if the government failed to meet his demands by the afternoon.