Islamabad: Thousands of Pakistanis shouting slogans like "we want change" thronged the streets of Islamabad in support of Sufi cleric Muhammad Tahir-Ul-Qadri's anti-government demonstrations on Monday. Flag-waving citizens braved tear gas shells fired by the police and called for a crackdown on corruption, backing Qadri's call for an indefinite delay in elections.
Qadri had earlier threatened the government of a million-man march and demanded that the army play a bigger role in forming a caretaker government. The numbers in the march, however, seemed limited to a few thousands. Qadri has given an ultimatum to the Pakistan government to dissolve the national and provincial assemblies by 11 am Tuesday.
The cleric had earlier made a deal with the government to take out a peaceful march but surprised them midway asking people to break barricades and move towards parliament. Qadri shot to fame since he returned to Pakistan from Canada weeks ago and demanded an interim government to root out corrupt and incompetent officials blamed for chronic energy shortages, stunted economic growth, flourishing crime and a failing campaign against the Taliban.
Many of the protesters in Qadri's march were from middle class. They included police officers, teachers, civil servants, domestic workers and students. The complaints were numerous and familiar: not enough jobs, poor schools and understaffed hospitals, no security and rampant corruption.
"When atrocities become unbearable, Allah wakes up sleeping people like us, by saying: 'Look, today these people are in this place, tomorrow something could happen and you will be standing in this place,'" said Shahnaz Ali, a housewife from Islamabad.
"There is the law of the jungle in Pakistan. That is why we want to remove these incompetent people and replace them with capable, talented and patriotic people who will work for the betterment of the nation," added Sajida Sagheer, a college student from Lahore.
Qadri says he wants the judiciary to bar corrupt politicians from running for office and that the army could play a role in the formation of a caretaker government to manage the run-up to elections this spring. His calls have divided Pakistanis, with some regarding him as a reformist champion, like 20-year-old Madrasa student Imtiaz Bibi from the Sindhi town of Sukkur.
"God willing, we have total confidence that our demands will be accepted and we will bring about a change. God willing," she said. "We will support Dr Tahirul Qadri. We will support him as much as we possibly can. And even if we die doing that, we will have no regrets," added Sehrish Niamat from Sohan.
However, there are also others who see Qadri as a potential stooge for the military, which has a history of coups and interfering in elections. They say his demands are unconstitutional and replacing an elected government with an unelected one will not help accountability.
Leading television anchors have questioned the source of his funds for a lavish media campaign and fleets of buses to transport supporters. Qadri says most of the money came from donations from those fed up with the current administration.