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November 25, 2017

The Faizabad stalemate


November 25, 2017

The Faizabad protest is now approaching its third week with no end in sight yet. Multiple deadlines issued by the government and the courts have been ignored. Now the Supreme Court too has become involved and given the interior ministry three days to shift the protesters to Parade Ground. The three religious parties that initiated the protest – the Tehreek-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan – still want Law Minister Zahid Hamid sacked even though the its original complaint about the wording of the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat oath taken by Muslim parliamentarians has now been restored to its original form. What started as a nuisance has now grown into a genuine threat. The protesters seem to be spoiling for a fight and the government, still trying to be restrained in its approach, cannot allow its authority to be defied for too much longer. On Thursday, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said at a press conference that the sit-in was part of a conspiracy to hurt the electoral fortunes of the PML-N by pitting it against the protesters. While there is no evidence that the religious parties are acting at anyone’s behest, it is curious how protests which shut down the capital city have become a regular feature during the PML-N’s tenure. The two-member Supreme Court bench which has taken suo-motu notice of the issue also wants the intelligence agencies to ascertain if anyone, including foreign countries, is behind the protests.
The government has been forced into a seemingly impossible position. As Iqbal said in his press conference, there is clearly an attempt to force a confrontation. The government has tried to avoid it so far by taking secondary measures like shutting off streetlights in the area and putting on additional barriers to prevent reinforcements from arriving. It has also tried negotiations by sending religious leaders to talk to the protesters. None of that has worked so far because of the determination of the

protesting organisations to continue their dharna. Suggestions have been made that the state use tear gas to disperse the protesters but that raises the very real possibility of a violent standoff. Ahsan Iqbal unequivocally and quite properly ruled out accepting any of the protesters’ demands, pointing out that it will only embolden others to hold the government hostage in the future. But the pressure on the government is increasing on all sides, from the protesters who have not budged an inch and the Islamabad High Court which has issued a contempt notice against Iqbal for not taking any steps to end the dharna. In all of this, citizens of Islamabad and Rawalpindi are also tiring of the protest and willing to take action on their own by staging small protests. At some point, the stalemate will have to end – the only question now is whether it can be done so peacefully.

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