Tens of thousands of Islamists remained in a protest camp in the heart of Pakistan’s capital on Saturday amid tight security, as authorities deployed additional shipping containers and riot police to block access to key government buildings.
The protest caravan rolled into Islamabad on Thursday, led by cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who heads the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party. He has given prime minister Imran Khan until Sunday night to resign over the country’s economic hardships.
Mr Khan has said he will not succumb to pressure.
Mr Rehman has hinted he may try to force Mr Khan to step down by staging a mass march on the “Red Zone,” where Parliament, the prime minister’s residence, government offices and foreign embassies are located.
Authorities in Islamabad were seen moving more rows of massive shipping containers onto roads leading to the Red Zone. Paramilitary forces were also deployed.
“This mammoth crowd has the capacity to arrest the prime minister themselves from the prime minister’s house if he has not resigned within two days,” Mr Rehman said on Friday night, while asking Pakistan’s powerful military not to side with Mr Khan.
Mr Rehman had initially denied female journalists access to his all-male encampment, which stretches over a mile along a highway and into an open area allocated by the government. His ban caused a storm on social media, and women reporters were eventually allowed into the camp.
The hard-line cleric has campaigned for regressive legislation targeting women, and opposed legislation to eliminate of violence against women. He has also refused to allow women members of his party to participate in the demonstration.
Mr Rehman has been accusing the military of influencing the 2018 parliamentary elections that saw Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party come into power. Mr Rehman’s seven-party political alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, could secure only 16 seats in the 342-member National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. Mr Khan received 155.
Mr Rehman, without naming the army, said on Friday: “If it is felt that state institutions were behind the rigged elections and protecting these incompetent and illegitimate rulers, we won’t be able to stop ourselves from forming an opinion about these institutions.”