Thousands of demonstrators poured into Islamabad from across the country on Friday, including massive marches organized in the cities of Lahore and Karachi this week.
The protesters are largely hardline Islamists who want Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government to resign, ostensibly because they believe his 2018 election was illegitimate.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported the protest was organized by Fazlur Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema-i Islam Fazi party, one of the largest Islamist parties in Pakistan. Rehman announced he would lead prayer services before the demonstration began.
There might have been even more unhappy Pakistanis on the streets Friday, but women were forbidden from participating by the Islamist organizers of the march. Women who tried to join the march, and female journalists who tried to cover it, reported on social media that they were confronted by menacing crowds of men who chanted Islamist slogans at them until they departed.
The threat of public disruption was great enough to prompt schools and businesses in Islamabad to close ahead of the protest march. According to Rehman, the Azadi (“Freedom”) March will continue demonstrating until Khan resigns.
“From Karachi to Lahore and to Islamabad, the people have decided that there was no more room for this government,” he declared.
Rehman has allies, including the parties of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former President Asif Ali Zardari. Sharif himself is in poor health and might see the remainder of his sentence on corruption charges suspended while he recuperates in a Lahore hospital.
“The time has come to get rid of this fake government,” declared Shehbaz Sharif, president of Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party and the former prime minister’s brother, during Friday’s demonstrations.
“If given a chance, we along with the joint opposition will fix Pakistan’s economy within six months,” he promised, accusing Khan of rejecting reform proposals with “pride and arrogance.”
According to Deutsche Welle on Friday, the opposition offered only the usual complaints about rigged elections after Khan’s victory last August, but has become emboldened by a faltering economy, rising inflation, and public resentment over tough bailout terms demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The opposition also accuses Khan of using heavy-handed tactics to suppress dissent and claims the Pakistani military is the only thing keeping him in power, In fact, although Khan himself claims to have solid support from the military, Pakistani sources have reported their “unconditional” support for him is beginning to fray because they believe Khan’s government is “underperforming.”
Khan’s position might be even more precarious if the opposition was unified, but its liberal and centrist elements are worried about an Islamist takeover and the imposition of hardline sharia religious law.
Khan was not gracious in his response to the demonstration.
“Gone are the days when one used to use Islam to gain power. This is a new Pakistan. Sit however long you want. When your food runs out, we will send more,” he said, vowing that the opposition would never be given the political concessions it demands and vowing to jail many of its leaders for corruption.
“Those who make money in the name of Islam have been exposed. I have promised to Allah I will send all those to jail who looted the country,” the prime minister said during a televised speech, taking a shot at Rehman.
“Who are they wishing to gain freedom from? I want the media to go there and ask people who they wish to free themselves from,” he said, sarcastically referring to the “Freedom March” designation for the protests.
Rehman fired back with an ultimatum for Khan to resign within 48 hours, implying street violence could be on the table if he refuses to comply.
“This is a peaceful rally and we are peaceful people, therefore we want to stay peaceful otherwise this [crowd] has the strength to go to the prime minister’s office and arrest him,” he said, as quoted by AFP on Friday.
“After one year in power, 220 millions Pakistanis are screaming but the time has arrived for Imran Khan to scream,” added Shehbaz Sharif.