Pakistani cleric Tahirul Qadri tests political voice in million-man march
The Arab spring seems a long way from Pakistan's extended winter of discontent.
Still, when religious scholar Tahirul Qadri talks about his hopes for the massive rally billed as the "Long March", which he has planned in Islamabad for today, one that he hopes will lure more than a million people into the streets of the quiet capital, the image he uses is that of Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Government leaders have tried to warn the grey-bearded mullah, respected by many for his denunciations of the Taliban and his espousal of tolerance, that a gathering on the scale he is planning would give militants the opportunity to carry out a major terrorist act. Pakistanis have not forgotten that it was at a large rally in Islamabad's twin city, Rawalpindi, that former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 2007.
But Qadri has refused to back down.
Already, police have begun bracing the city for the event. Freight containers and barbed wire are being positioned to block streets leading to the capital's "red zone", which embraces the parliament, President Asif Ali Zardari's residence, the Supreme Court and other major government buildings. Anyone trying to enter the capital will have to show identification. As many as 10,000 police and security personnel will be deployed to maintain order.
Qadri is demanding changes that would prevent corrupt politicians and tax cheats from seeking office. He also wants revisions to a law that requires a caretaker government to be put in place in the weeks before national elections - scheduled for spring - a long-standing measure aimed at ensuring unbiased management of the election and vote counting.
Qadri argues that the authority to appoint the caretaker administration should be widened to include non-political institutions such as the military. That has led to speculation that Pakistan's security establishment may be orchestrating and perhaps financing Qadri's plans.
Military officials deny any link to Qadri. And the cleric insists he is not hewing to anyone's agenda but his own.
But in the highly charged atmosphere of Pakistani politics, not everyone takes what Qadri says at face value.
"This whole charade of a million-people march and a sit-in like Tahrir Square speaks of a larger effort at work," said Raza Rumi, a leading political analyst with the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. "It could be personal adventurism, or it could involve tacit military support. It's difficult to say whether the military is involved, but definitely his agenda suits the military and its historical control over power."
Qadri's sudden appearance on the political scene has come as a surprise to most Pakistanis. Now 61, he moved to Canada in 2006 after announcing that he had become disillusioned with Pakistan's politics. In the 2002 elections, his Awami Tehrik party had been able to garner only a single parliament seat.
Living in Toronto, Qadri became an outspoken critic of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
When Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated in 2011 by one of his bodyguards for his criticism of Pakistan's blasphemy law, Qadri lashed out at Pakistani clerics and conservatives who regarded Taseer's assassin as a hero. He has also spoken against the use of a controversial law as a means to exploit and punish minorities. He reappeared in Pakistan last month.
"We do not accept politics where nothing is done to alleviate poverty, where there is kidnapping, where millions have no water, gas and electricity," he told a crowd three weeks ago.