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Pakistan protest march ends: Who won?

Islamabad has brokered an end to a protest challenging its rule. Though demonstrators declared victory, the agreement did not meet their public demands.

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Supporters of Pakistani Sunni cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri stand sit around a fire, to shield from the morning cold at the site where they were camping and attended an anti-government rally, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday. A protest march to Islamabad last weekend and a sit-in outside Parliament ended Thursday as the government and the protest leader signed an agreement.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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The political drama in Pakistan that started with a protest march to Islamabad last weekend and a sit-in outside Parliament ended Thursday as the government and the protest leader signed an agreement.

Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a moderate Islamic cleric recently returned from Canada, played off the frustrations of the nation as it faces ongoing violence, corruption, and power outages ahead of a general election. He amassed tens of thousands of followers in a call for the dismissal of the government. On day four of his protest, after Mr. Qadri claimed that the demonstrations could turn into a Tahrir-Square-type revolution, the government conceded to meet with him and draw up an agreement.

When Qadri exited the meeting he told his supporters: “You are victorious, and your sacrifices were worth it in the end," before letting them know they could go home.

But observers say the agreement doesn’t really meet any of Qadri’s demands and merely speeds up points that already exist in the Pakistani Constitution, raising the question of whether Qadri really won anything.

“The agreement is a complete surrender by Qadri because the government is still in power. He had no choice but to accept what was offered to him,” says Hamid Mir, a political talk show host based in Islamabad. Mr. Mir added that he considered this a win for Pakistan's democracy: In the past such attempts to derail the government have been supported by the opposition, but in this instance, Pakistan's political parties, including the opposition, united to strike down his move, he says.

The agreement does not include an agreement for Parliament to dissolve, the government to resign, or a prevision for the judiciary and military to play a part in choosing the caretaker government to be installed between the time the current government's term expires and the elections, as Qadri and his supporters called for. The agreement did, however, promise Qadri's political party a say in choosing the caretaker government.

“People of Pakistan came out on the roads for a revolution that did not happen,” Mir says. Adding that he fears that in the coming days other nonstate actors could attempt to copy what Qadri did, with their own list of grievances.

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“It was very sad to see the government officials standing with him, hugging him, and giving him so much importance after they reached an agreement – this has set a very bad precedent,” he says.

Like it or not, say some analysts, Qadri has now become a political stakeholder and will keep in check the government that many in Pakistan perceive to be corrupt.

“The agreement will create the necessary pressure on the government to act according to the Constitution, which is a good thing,” says Fahd Husain, a senior journalist based in Islamabad. “However, it does show that the government only acts under pressure,” Mr. Husain added.

Many suspect that Qadri is a front for Pakistan’s powerful military because of Qadri’s history of supporting Army rule in Pakistan. Both Qadri and the military have publicly denied such claims 

“The conventional wisdom is that it’s the military – because we have seen them resorting to such tricks in the past. But it did not seem like a sanctioned top-to-bottom sort of operation,” says Zarrar Khuhro, editor of an English news magazine in Pakistan adding that “it is necessary to distinguish between an institutional support and individuals support. And Qadri may have enjoyed the latter.”

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