An Unlikely Figure Jolts Pakistani Politics ; Sufi Preacher Advocates a Democratic 'Revolution' but Isn't Eligible for Office

By Walsh, Declan | International Herald Tribune, January 14, 2013 | Go to article overview

An Unlikely Figure Jolts Pakistani Politics ; Sufi Preacher Advocates a Democratic 'Revolution' but Isn't Eligible for Office


Walsh, Declan, International Herald Tribune


Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, a Sufi scholar with a taste for hard politics, is calling for a democratic "revolution" in Pakistan, even though his dual citizenship means he is not eligible for office.

Campaign season has begun in Pakistan, with elections widely expected by mid-May that, if they proceed peacefully, would represent a democratic milestone in a country plagued by intermittent military rule.

But the starting whistle has been sounded by an unlikely figure: a tough-talking preacher who is calling for a democratic "revolution" in Pakistan, even if he is not eligible for election himself.

Little known in the country just one month ago, the preacher, Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, a white-bearded Sufi scholar with a taste for hard politics, has taken the country by storm in recent weeks.

After returning from Canada, where he has lived for seven years, Mr. Qadri made his first mark with a large rally in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Dec. 23. He demanded at the rally that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari resign to make way for a caretaker administration led by technocrats.

Now Mr. Qadri is mobilizing a "million man" march that he says will reach the capital, Islamabad, on Monday, where he promises to lead a lengthy sit-in that will kick off a "moral revolution" similar to the one in Tahrir Square in Cairo that led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. "There will be no defeat," Mr. Qadri, 61, said by telephone Saturday. "This is for a spiritual and moral revolution. We will not surrender before corruption."

That message resonates with ordinary Pakistanis who are weary of poor governance, dire energy shortages and chronic violence. On Saturday, ethnic Hazara Shiites in the city of Quetta blocked a road with the coffins of victims of a sectarian attack in the city Thursday night. The death toll from the attack -- the worst ever against the Hazara -- has since risen to 96, according to Reuters, and the protesters said they would remove the coffins only when the army took over security in Quetta.

But Mr. Qadri's sudden arrival on the political scene has also brought worries that he represents the interests of forces bent on derailing Pakistan's fragile democratic order. There have been questions about the origins of Mr. Qadri's money -- one opposition senator estimates that Mr. Qadri has already spent $4 million on television advertising -- and, inevitably in a country where conspiracy theories run rife, the news media have reported on allegations of support from outside the country.

Some theories focus on Western governments, particularly that of the United States, but most analysts point to the convergence between Mr. Qadri's agenda and that of the powerful military, which has done little to disguise its disdain for Mr. Zardari -- and even the opposition leaders who threaten to replace him.

Richard E. Hoagland, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, said Jan. 5 that the United States did not support any political parties in Pakistan and denied any links to Mr. Qadri.

The planned march on Islamabad "reflects the military's desire for regime change" and "signals that military interest in political engineering is alive and well," said Shamila N. Chaudhary, an analyst at Eurasia Group who formerly served as the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on President Barack Obama's National Security Council.

But, Ms. Chaudhary added, the days when the Pakistani military could seize power on a whim have passed.

Nonetheless, the government is taking him seriously. The interior minister, Rehman Malik, has vowed to prevent the march from reaching the gates of Parliament in Islamabad, citing security concerns. Officials say that a large crowd in Islamabad would provide an easy target for a suicide bombing by Islamist extremists and that such an attack could set off widespread unrest and open the door to a military intervention. …

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