Commuters happy, Pakistan uneasy after govt strikes deal with religious protesters

A Pakistani commuter rides past by a burned police van after the protest of a religious group in Islamabad on Tuesday. — AFP

ISLAMABAD — Commuters were jubilant on Tuesday as a main highway into Islamabad reopened three weeks after a sit-in blocked it, as uneasy soul-searching grew among many Pakistanis over the government’s capitulation to the protest demands.

The Islamabad Highway, used daily by thousands travelling from the garrison city of Rawalpindi into the Pakistani capital, was back to normal Tuesday, with traffic flowing, shops open, and sanitation workers cleaning up the mess left behind by the protesters.

The previously little-known hardline religious group Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLY) had virtually paralyzed Islamabad, where there is little in the way of public transportation. Drivers were forced to go hours out of their way on overcrowded, potholed side roads unsuited for heavy traffic.

“Everything clear and moving. Its (sic) good to be back in route,” commuter Nauman Naseer posted on a Facebook traffic updates group.

But joy on the roads was dampened for many Pakistanis by fear that a dangerous precedent has been set.

TLY had demanded the resignation of Pakistan’s Law Minister Zahid Hamid over a small, hastily-reversed amendment to the oath election candidates must swear.

The demonstrators had linked the change to blasphemy.

The government was forced to seek help from the military — widely seen as the country’s most powerful institution — after a bungled attempt to clear the sit-in over the weekend devolved into deadly violence.

The law minister resigned on Monday, with protest leaders saying the government would meet all their demands in a deal the army helped broker.

“It is a surrender so abject that the mind is numb and the heart sinks,” wrote the country’s leading English newspaper Dawn in a blistering editorial on the deal titled “Capitulation”.

“Something profound changed in the country yesterday and the reverberations will be felt for a long time.”

But Daily Jang, the country’s largest Urdu-language newspaper, praised the outcome and role of the military — especially army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa — in ending the protest.

The Islamabad High Court on Monday demanded a full accounting of the agreement and the part played by the military.

Many of the protesters chanted: “Long live the Pakistan Army!” as they dispersed, reporters saw.

A viral video showing what appeared to be a Pakistani paramilitary officer handing out envelopes of cash to protesters inspired wide media coverage and scathing comments on Facebook and Twitter against the deal and the military’s role in it. — AFP