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

The weather in Pakistan is gradually getting cold but the political temperature is getting higher with each passing day. Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, the chief of Jamiat-Ulam-e-Islam (F), has finally announced the date of his long march against the government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). On Thursday evening, Fazal set October 27 as the day his long march on the capital would begin, which will end eventually as a sit-in in Islamabad that will continue until the current regime is toppled. Fazal is a right-wing politician who enjoys the support of a massive religious vote bank in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

Another development before Fazal’s announcement was a meeting of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Qamar Javed Bajwa with the country’s leading business tycoons to address their concerns regarding the uncertainties plaguing the economy and the PTI government’s failure to address these. This was more evidence of the lack of trust investors have in the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

It also gives the impression that the incumbent government is merely a puppet of the security establishment. Perhaps fearing the wrath of the establishment, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the faction of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) headed by Shahbaz Sharif have ditched Fazal in the hope of getting some payback from the invisible forces. However, Fazal remains the biggest threat to a government faced with economic and political turmoil despite being backed by the establishment. So the question dominating political debate in Pakistan right now is whether Fazal will be able to topple the government by locking down Islamabad.

In the past, we have seen that Imran Khan himself and then Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) were able to lock down the federal capital with the support of only a few hundred people. Since both Khan and TLP chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi were backed by the establishment to weaken the hold of Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N on power, the mainstream media fully supported them. It was the media hype that successfully created a perception against Sharif and his party among the masses, first in the name of corruption and then in the name of blasphemy and treason.

Most recently Interior Minister Ijaz Shah has admitted that Sharif could have been elected for the fourth time as prime minister had he not listened to his hawkish aides. This is more evidence after a leaked video that Sharif was not ousted for corruption but for refusing to take dictation from the establishment. The media were used as tools to assassinate Sharif’s political image. So Fazal, being an experienced politician, knows that the media in Pakistan are currently going through the worst form of censorship and that he will be pitted against all the odds, as he is not only looking to send Khan packing but also wants to oust a few bigwigs of the establishment.

His protest at the end of October will be crucial, as Bajwa’s term as COAS is due to end in November. Though Bajwa has been given a three-year extension by the PTI government, that is linked to the political stability and survival of the current administration. If Fazal topples Imran Khan, the extension can easily be challenged in court.

Many whistleblowers in the power corridors believe that Fazal has the backing of certain quarters of the establishment who want to see a change in the mindset and policies of the establishment about intervening in politics. Though Fazal denies any such backing, the record of his last two decades in politics shows that he does not like to go against the wind. In fact, the political history of Pakistan shows that from the movement against General Ayub Khan to the long marches in the 1990s and then the Lawyers’ Movement in 2007 and Imran Khan’s sit-in against Sharif’s government in 2014, all were backed by certain quarters of the establishment.

Fazal has been assured by Nawaz Sharif of much-needed support from Punjab despite his younger brother Shahbaz and his close aides being against the idea of joining the long march. Nawaz Sharif has nothing to lose from this round of the political battle, as if Fazal succeeds, Sharif will ultimately prevail, and if Fazal is not successful, Sharif can bargain with the establishment with the video recordings he has in his hands and with his pro-establishment brother at the helm of the affairs of PML-N.

Though PML-N has not officially announced that it will join the long march, a close aide of Sharif who wished not to be named told this correspondent that the party will eventually join. However, with Sharif and his daughter Maryam behind bars, the real question is whether the second-tier leadership of PML-N will be able to bring as many protesters on the road as Maryam could have. It is an established fact that only Maryam and her father have a cult following and both can pull in the crowds, while Shahbaz is incapable of doing so on his own.

On the other hand, the PPP has refused to join the protest, for the stated reason that Fazal will use religious cards against the current government. But this raises the question, if PPP dislikes the religious card, then why did it align with Fazal when it was in power from 2008 to 2013? The fact is neither the PPP leadership nor the Shahbaz faction in PML-N want to take any risks that could potentially land them in more trouble if Fazal fails.

While it is true than Fazal should refrain from using the religious card, as doing so in the past has badly damaged the social and political fabric of Pakistan, both the establishment and Imran Khan need to realize that they have mercilessly used this card to topple their opponents. Perhaps history is repeating itself and it is the time for Khan and his backers to taste their own medicine.

There are rumors in the power corridors that the PTI government has asked Riyadh to intervene and stop Fazal from going ahead with his protest. Fazal hails from the Deobandi sect of Islam, which has enjoyed Saudi backing in Pakistan for a long time. However, with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the helm of affairs and Riyadh ditching the Deobandi sect, it remains to be seen whether Fazal will take the Saudis seriously and give up his plans.

But whatever happens, Fazal through his clever politics has exposed the real faces of the main political parties. Other then Maryam Nawaz and Nawaz Sharif and a few of their close aides, the PML-N consists of a pro-establishment mindset, while the PPP has been playing as a B team of the establishment since toppling the PML-N provincial government in Balochistan.

For Khan, this is the worst of situations, where he is faced with the daunting task of fixing the economy and on the other hand, he will face Fazal’s street power in Islamabad at the end of this month. If the business community and common masses join Fazal’s long march because of the economic turmoil, Khan will not be able to sustain his rule. The economic and political turmoil and global isolation on the Kashmir issue are the ticking time bombs for Khan and his backers.

The hole that was created in the ship of the current regime by Maryam Nawaz is gradually sinking the entire political discourse. It remains to be seen whether it will sink under the burden of its own failures or if Fazal will be the one who finally scuttles the PTI ship of state. Even if Khan and his backers survive this onslaught from Fazal, the economic turmoil and Kashmir fiasco will not let them prevail for much longer.

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