A radical Pakistani cleric who galvanised tens of thousands of followers to march on Islamabad will meet opposition politicians to consider his next move after a deadline he imposed for the prime minister to resign passed without Imran Khan stepping down.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s followers, many of them students at his religious schools, started out last week from the southern port city of Karachi, marching to Islamabad where they have since camped out on the city’s outskirts for three days.
Mr Rehman accuses Mr Khan of bad governance and demands the government should follow radical Islamic laws. Mr Khan has ignored the protesters’ demands.
The cleric’s radical religious schools have provided men for both the Afghan Taliban militant group and the anti-government Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.
Bilal Bhutto-Zardari, the co-leader of the left-leaning Pakistan People’s party, once led by the late Benazir Bhutto, has said his party will not join Mr Rehman in the sit-in.
While his party supports Mr Rehman’s call for Mr Khan to resign, Mr Bhutto-Zardari’s party is not ready to take part in the sit-in.
Mr Rehman has come under attack by human rights activists who have criticised his fiery speeches as well as his refusal to allow women on his protest march.
Even women journalists were barred from the rallies until an outcry forced him to relent.
In his speeches, Mr Rehman has attacked the minority Ahmadi sect and Ahmadi homes and places of worship are often targeted by Sunni militants, who consider them heretics.
There are about half a million Ahmadis in Pakistan, which has a population of 220 million and which declared Ahmadis non-Muslims in 1974.
Mr Rahman has also staunchly defended a controversial blasphemy law that carried a death sentence for anyone found guilty of insulting Islam.
Khan has said he will not be driven from power but has allowed Mr Rahman’s rally to go on, provided it remain in a designated area on Islamabad’s outskirts.
Authorities stepped up security and brought in large containers to protect the Pakistani capital’s so-called Red Zone, which houses the parliament, government offices and most foreign embassies.