Pakistani soldiers patrol a red zone area of Islamabad on Wednesday. (AFP)
Islamabad, Aug. 13 (Reuters): Thousands of riot police sealed off Pakistan’s capital with barbed wire and shipping containers on the eve of the country’s Independence Day, in a bid to foil mass protests aimed at toppling embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Two groups, led by Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan and fiery cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, plan to converge on Islamabad tomorrow intent on forcing Sharif to call an early election little more than a year after his landslide victory at the polls.
Police said today that they had detained some 2,100 followers of the two populist Opposition figures in the past few days, and with all the obstacles in their path it was uncertain how many protesters would reach the capital.
The latest challenge to Pakistan’s fragile democracy will inevitably sow unease among neighbours and allies. They dread instability in the nuclear-armed state, which is battling an internal Islamist insurgency and is home to several virulently anti-western and anti-Indian militant groups.
While police and paramilitary manned barricades round the city, how far Khan and Qadri succeed in destabilising the government could ultimately depend on the stance taken by a military with a long history of mounting coups.
The protesters insist they are reformers crusading against corruption and say last year’s election was fraudulent, whereas Sharif’s loyalists accuse them of being a front for darker, anti-democratic forces.
While the political temperature has become more feverish, Pakistan's generals have stayed silent. Exchanges of fire between Pakistani and Indian forces on the ceasefire line that acts as a de facto border in the disputed Kashmir region have added to the tension.
Many analysts doubt whether the military wants to seize power, but there is a widespread perception that it could use the opportunity to put the civilian government under its thumb.
“The idea was to put pressure on our government and it has worked,” a minister in Sharif’s cabinet said, requesting anonymity.
“Once this is over, things will be a lot more difficult for the government. The decision-making space will be reduced.”
Speaking to journalists in Lahore on Monday, information minister Pervais Rashid was more direct, accusing a former “spymaster” of coordinating the security for Khan’s protest.