Fazal-ur-Rehman, head of the Pakistan Democratic Movement. Photo: Wikipedia

Pakistani politician and cleric Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman is set to launch a protest march on Islamabad this Sunday. What Fazal calls an “Azadi March” or “freedom march” has achieved unprecedented media attention in Pakistan for the past three weeks. About 200 TV programs or talk shows on mainstream electronic media have been aired on domestic channels. Now the content on the march is shifting from news items to analyses and opinions. It is also shifting from Afghan and Indian media to mainstream international media, especially in the Persian Gulf region.

The cleric says the aim of the protest march is to oust the inefficient government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. However, in the same breath, he also criticizes the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency for stealing the last general elections, though he has not filed any petition in the courts or with the Election Commission of Pakistan. He has also not attempted to impeach the prime minister in parliament in a constitutional manner.

The main opposition parties, though ambiguous, support the protest march. A segment of society also views Fazal as a pawn of establishment. Therefore, a few political parties don’t trust him fully and are dealing with him cautiously. Neither his actual agenda nor the sources of massive funding to the corporate media busy shaping the perception against the government of Imran Khan is known. However, one thing is clear. Fazal has effectively diverted the attention of Pakistan’s government and media from the curfew in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

The “Rahbar Committee” (core committee) of the opposition parties has decided that negotiations with the government will be held only after it accepts the right to peaceful protest. The local opposition in Islamabad during a multiparty conference decided to observe the first day of Fazal’s march, October 27, as a black day in protest against the ongoing repression in Indian-administered Kashmir. However, politically informed people view the gathering, even on the first day, in Islamabad as an extension of the protest march to measure the mood and sentiment of the people against the government for any future course of action.

Fazal has issued guidelines and urged his followers to participate in his protest march. He has called upon workers, mainly the students of religious schools under like-minded clerics, to carry with them rations and other necessary items for at least four or five days, indicating the possibility of a long sit-in in Islamabad.

An interesting situation developed when the Lahore High Court, while hearing a petition against the establishment of a private militia (Ansar-ul-Islam) by Fazal, observed that political protests and sit-ins were part of a democratic system and such activities could not be controlled through judicial orders. The judiciary did not see anything unconstitutional in Ansar-ul-Islam. Nevertheless, the government has banned Ansar-ul-Islam and frozen its assets.

The bureaucracy, it appears, is either indifferent or not supporting the Khan government against the protest march. Opposition politicians Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari have been moved from jail to hospitals. Convicted and accused politicians are getting media coverage and being connected to their colleagues and workers, inciting further support for protests. Hussain Nawaz, the elder son of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, legally an absconder, was given media coverage through Skype on a primetime TV show. He supported the protests against the government. Punjab police, who have proved many times that they are not trained to handle mobs, are waiting for guidance.

The politically left out, those convicted of financial corruption, and those unwilling to pay taxes are teaming up against the government of Imran Khan. Quite interestingly, liberals are also supporting Fazal, the master of using religion in politics.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz media cell is actively creating a narrative in international media. The news on the health of Nawaz Sharif and Zardari and arrest of Muhammad  Safdar Awan has also been reported in the foreign media. An opinion piece by Imad Zafar in Asia Times titled “Only a retreat can save face for establishment” shows that the protest march may be used in international media against the Pakistan armed forces pushing for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. A report by Hugh Tomlinson in The Times of London titled “Pakistan’s weapon-hungry army takes control of economy” is a strategic-level critique on the growing role of the establishment in domestic affairs.

Despite the fact that the World Bank president is to visit Pakistan on October 31 and positive content on Khan’s Ehsaas Program, The Times’ article is a theme line for the international media’s negative coverage of Pakistani domestic affairs.

It is difficult for international media to criticize Khan for being honest and outspoken and for his philanthropic works, but the Pakistani establishment is the favorite punching bag of foreign media and the West. Going by this, it is anticipated that the Azadi March will be covered with maximum propaganda against the establishment, especially its role in the media, economy and politics in Pakistan. As regards Fazal, he has already achieved what he aimed for, to stay relevant in Pakistani politics.

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