Supporters of Pakistani firebrand Islamic cleric Tahirul Qadri roll through… (Farooq Naeem, AFP/Getty…)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Tens of thousands of protesters led by a firebrand Islamic cleric descended on the Pakistani capital Monday in a fierce outpouring of anger and frustration with the government that many worried could destabilize the country ahead of national elections this spring.
The size of Tahirul Qadri's "Long March" to Islamabad from the eastern city of Lahore appeared to fall far short of his predictions of more than a million people.
The caravan of hundreds of buses, vans, motorcycles and cars jammed with demonstrators was allowed to enter the capital and hold a rally on a main thoroughfare roughly two miles from parliament.
There, about 2 a.m. Tuesday, legions of angry Pakistanis heard Qadri promise to dissolve parliament and make President Asif Ali Zardari "an ex-president." There were no official estimates of the crowd size, but Pakistani media estimated the rally had drawn as many as 40,000 people.
"Tomorrow, the injustices will end, and these corrupt people no longer will run the government!" Qadri shouted to the crowd from behind a bulletproof screen. Then, as if addressing Zardari's administration, he added, "Don't test the patience of these people."
Long, snaking cordons of freight containers and barbed wire were in place to keep demonstrators from achieving their goal of staging a sit-in in front of parliament. But after the rally, thousands of demonstrators began leaving the protest site, on Islamabad's Jinnah Avenue, and heeding Qadri's request that they march toward parliament.
Later, government officials agreed to allow the sit-in to take place in a plaza about 500 yards from parliament.
Qadri portrays himself as a reformist cleric bent on ensuring that Pakistan's current corps of politicians, which he asserts is steeped in corruption, isn't allowed to stand for election in national polls scheduled for May. He has won praise in the West for his condemnation of terrorist groups and his espousal of tolerance. But like most religious party leaders, he has won scant support from voters in past elections. In 2002, his Awami Tehrik party won just a single seat in parliament.
In 2006, Qadri announced that he was disillusioned with the country's political scene, moved to Canada and obtained citizenship there. His sudden return to Pakistan in mid-December surprised the nation, and his speech in Lahore on Dec. 23 denouncing rampant corruption at all levels of government galvanized a segment of the country deeply frustrated with Zardari's inability to clamp down on terrorism and mend the country's economy.
Last week, Qadri had vowed to continue the sit-in protest in Islamabad until the government gave in to his demand for a preelection caretaker administration appointed with the input of the country's judiciary and military. That demand has led many observers to speculate that the country's powerful military could be behind Qadri's agenda, a charge the military has denied.
Many analysts and commentators have questioned whether Qadri's mission ultimately imperils what could be a historic transfer of power from one civilian government to another in a country with a history of military takeovers and interference in governance.
"This represents a big threat to Pakistan's parliamentary process and its hard-fought democratic freedoms," said Raza Rumi, a political analyst at the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute.
Qadri's movement appeared to lose steam in the days leading up to the march. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the party that runs the government in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, pulled out of the rally last week, citing concerns about security. And, as the march from Lahore began Sunday, the spotlight shifted at times to sit-in protests across the country by Shiite Muslims angered by suicide bombings that killed more than 90 Shiites in Quetta last week.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni Muslim militant group, claimed responsibility for the attacks. For years, Pakistan's minority Shiite Muslim sect has been terrorized by Sunni militant groups who regard Shiites as heretics. In a strong display of their grief over the killings, relatives staged a sit-in on a Quetta roadway alongside dozens of coffins carrying the victims. Under Islamic tradition, the dead should be buried as quickly as possible.
Protesting Shiite Muslims had demanded that Zardari's administration oust the government of Baluchistan province, where Quetta is located, and that the army be deployed to track down militants. On Monday, Shiite Muslims agreed to end their protest after Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf agreed to dismiss the provincial government and turn over all power to the governor, who is appointed by the federal government. Ashraf also ordered the deployment of paramilitary troops to hunt down the militants behind last week's bombings.
How much Qadri can accomplish through his rally remains to be seen. On Monday evening, however, his supporters appeared ready to follow Qadri as far as he would take them.
"I got here at 6 a.m. today, and if we have to stay here for a month, we will stay here," said Sheik Muhammad Salman, 28, a fabric store owner from the Punjab city of Layyah. "We will leave only when we get the change we're looking for, and that change is the removal of this government."
Because Qadri has outspokenly opposed the Taliban and Al Qaeda, government officials worried that a large rally led by him would provide an ideal opportunity for a militant attack. As a result, schools and many businesses closed, and more than 10,000 police and paramilitary troops were deployed throughout the city.
As of early Tuesday, however, the sit-in was proceeding without incident.