Heads held high, bursting with pride at accomplishing what they had believed to be impossible, the tens of thousands who had followed Tahir-ul Qadri on his long march to Islamabad dispersed Thursday night, marking an end to a sit-in that had paralyzed Pakistan’s federal capital for four days.
The Canadian-Pakistani lawyer turned cleric had set forth from Lahore on Jan. 13 and arrived in Islamabad a day and a half later. Setting up camp in front of Parliament House, he and his followers could not be ignored.
After a two-day sit-in, Qadri finally gave a Castro-length speech describing the government as a “band of crooks.” He encouraged his followers to stand their ground, asking them to swear on the Quran that they would stay put and told them: “If you leave now, Pakistan is doomed.”
Among his demands was for the government to enact electoral reforms in line with Pakistan’s Constitution, including firing the current Election Commission, establishing impartial election oversight, and discarding all federal and provincial assemblies for being corrupt. On Thursday, after a final ultimatum in which he warned the government to meet him now or prepare for consequences, he got what he wanted.
Dubbed the Islamabad Long March Declaration, the five-point agreement between Qadri, Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, and representatives of all ruling coalition parties, among other things, requires Pakistan’s National Assembly to be dissolved before March 16 with elections to be held within 90 days. In addition, it allows Qadri to have a say in the government’s candidate for the interim prime minister. Also, all nominations will be scrutinized over a period of 30 days to ensure that candidates are law abiding and “moral.”
The 61-year-old Qadri served as an adviser to Pakistan’s Islamic court during Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s tenure in the 1980s, before establishing his own political party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, in 1989. He continued to serve as an opposition leader until the mid-’90s, when his politics took a back seat to the charity and educational work of his trust.
In 2002 he contested elections under Gen. Pervez Musharraf and won a seat in the National Assembly—which he quit two years later in a 41-page resignation letter condemning the government for failing to live up to its promises. Since then Qadri has served as a goodwill ambassador of moderate Islam, issuing a 600-page fatwa against terrorism and even touring India, where he urged Islamabad and New Delhi to allocate more funds for the poor.
But while it may appear that the government has capitulated to his demands, Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent analyst, doesn’t think they’ve given away too much. “Nothing the government has committed can supersede the Constitution,” he told Newsweek. The assurance that Qadri will help choose the government’s interim prime minister means little, as the final choice requires approval from both the opposition and the government. Similarly, removing anyone from the Election Commission is a lengthy process, and nomination papers were always scrutinized—just not for 30 days.
The takeaway? Qadri saved face, and the government earned brownie points for peacefully ending the sit-in. The promised revolution, though, didn’t come to pass. In other words, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.