Thousands of protesters streamed into Islamabad tonight after answering the call of a religious cleric who is demanding political reforms and the end of corruption.
Tahir ul Qadri, who is leading a slow-moving motorcade of demonstrators from the city of Lahore to Islamabad, is calling for the political system to be cleaned up before the forthcoming election due to be held before May. Some 50,000 people are believed to be travelling in Qadri’s convoy and many more are expected to join it in Islamabad. He said the protesters will remain in Islamabad until their demands for political reform are met.
But critics accuse him of trying to derail the fragile democracy that was restored in Pakistan in 2008, after its latest period of military rule. Some observers assert that Qadri is a front for the military to disrupt the democratic process, just as Pakistan prepares for a historic transfer of power from one civilian government to another. The cleric has denied having such links to the military, and has insisted his reforms could be implemented within a matter of days.
Unusually for a country where women rarely join political protests, many women turned out to support the protest in Islamabad tonight. Qadri has tapped into a deep well of discontent with the current government, which is accused of harbouring corrupt ministers while the country endures economic turmoil and a break down in law and order.
“We see our mothers and sisters crying every day. We don’t have food for our children, there is no gas to heat our homes, there is no electricity to sustain us in our homes,” said Farhat Amir, 26, a mother of four girls, who had never previously taken part in a demonstration.
“We have come out for our rights. We are fed up.”
The crowd included a sprinkling of people of Pakistani origin from other countries, where Qadri’s Minhaj ul Quran organisation has a presence, including Britain. Mariam Khaled, a teacher from Barking, east London, had flown in for the event. “This is the first time Pakistan has seen a real uprising. This is not just men here, but old women, young mothers with their toddlers,” said Ms Khaled, 27. “People trust Dr Qadri because he is not standing for election.”