Imran Khan. Photo by Reuters
Pakistan's protest leaders demanding Prime Minister Nawaz
Sharif's resignation prepared to resume talks with the
government, reviving hopes for a negotiated solution to a
crisis that has shaken the coup-prone nation.
Protests turned deadly last weekend, with thousands trying to
storm Sharif's house, in an outburst of violence which has
prompted fears that the country's powerful army might
intervene and even topple Sharif.
But by Wednesday (local time) tension has significantly
eased, with only a couple of thousand of hard-core supporters
camping out peacefully outside parliament in the
high-security Red Zone area in the centre of the capital,
After weeks of deadlock, early signs have emerged that
protest leaders Imran Khan, a former cricket star, and Tahir
ul-Qadri, a firebrand Sufi cleric, were inching closer to
trying to find a negotiated solution to end the
"We have put all our demands in front of the opposition jirga
(mediating team)," said Raheeq Abbasi, Qadri's right-hand
man, adding that his camp would then hold a separate meeting
with government representatives later in the evening.
"If the jirga thinks that any of our demands are in violation
of Pakistan's constitution, law and democracy, then we would
be willing to let go of that demand."
Khan's camp was also expected to follow suit and present its
demands to the mediating team.
Yet, with both Qadri and Khan still adamant on their demand
that Sharif step down, it was unclear what kind of
face-saving solution the talks might bring that would suit
all the parties and help avoid further confrontation or
Chaotic scenes in the usually quiet capital have alarmed many
people in a nation where power has often changed hands though
military coups rather than elections, with some officials
accusing the military of orchestrating the unrest as a way of
sidelining or even ousting Sharif.
The army has denied it was meddling in civilian affairs,
saying it was neutral and calling for a political resolution.
The crisis has taken many turns since protests broke out in
mid-August, subsiding at times only to flare up again in
violence, with most commentators saying it was too early to
say whether a negotiated solution was in sight.
Few commentators think the army is bent on seizing power
again but even if Sharif survives, he would emerge
significantly weakened and likely play second-fiddle to the
army on key security and foreign policy issues.
'WHERE DO WE GO?'
As the crisis dragged on through its third week, Sharif
sought to boost his standing by convening a week-long
emergency joint session of parliament where he enjoys a solid
majority, and the chamber has rallied behind the embattled
The assembly saw chaotic scenes, however, on Wednesday as a
lawmaker representing Khan's party took the floor to lay out
opposition demands, with a sombre-looking Sharif making a
show of walking out just before the speech.
Khan and Qadri have accused Sharif of rigging last year's
election and have demanded a complete overhaul of the
"This is a deadlock, where do we go from here?" vice chairman
of Khan's PTI party, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, asked the chamber.
"We are here today because of the impasse ... We are
protesting to save parliament, not to destroy it."
Sharif served two terms as prime minister in the 1990s before
being ousted in a 1999 coup. He won an election last year but
has been at odds with the army since returning to office in
Pakistan's first democratic transition of power.
He annoyed the generals by calling for better ties with old
rival India as well as resisting an army plan for an
offensive against Pakistani Taliban insurgents. The army has
long jealously protected main foreign relations and security
as its areas of responsibility.
The treason trial of a former army chief and president,
Pervez Musharraf, who launched the 1999 coup, has also
angered the military.
Sharif has yet to speak at this week's parliament session.
Just outside the assembly, the protest site was quiet, with
activists resting on the grass or sleeping in tents.
But the centre of the capital remained paralysed, with many
streets blocked by police. Some residents were alarmed by the
emergence of checkpoints staffed by protesters wielding clubs
on the central street leading to main government buildings.