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Friday, December 03, 2021

Explained: Fazl-ur Rehman’s ‘Azadi March’ — What’s happening in Pakistan, and why

Fazl-ur Rehman, sometimes referred to in Pakistan as “Maulana Diesel”, is the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (F), where the ‘F’ stands for his first name. He is a hardline, rightwing Islamist politician of the kind that often receives significant public support in Pakistan.

, Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: November 3, 2019 12:27:11 am
On Friday, rightwing cleric Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman, who is leading the protest, gave Imran, whom he referred to as the “Gorbachev of Pakistan”, an ultimatum of two days to resign.

Leaders of Pakistan’s opposition were meeting on Saturday evening to decide on the ways to intensify their agitation against the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The opposition’s Azadi March, a giant protest rally that began from Karachi several days ago and has been making its way through Pakistan, reached the capital Islamabad on Thursday. On Friday, rightwing cleric Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman, who is leading the protest, gave Imran, whom he referred to as the “Gorbachev of Pakistan”, an ultimatum of two days to resign.

Present at the meeting of the opposition’s Rehbar Committee at the residence of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (F) leader Akram Khan Durrani were the PPP’s Farhatullah Babar and Nayyar Hussain Bukhari, PML-N’s Ahsan Iqbal and Ameer Muqam, Awami National Party general secretary Mian Iftikhar Hussain, National Party Senator Tahir Bizenjo, MMA spokesman Owais Noorani, and others, the leading Pakistani daily Dawn reported in a rolling update on its website.

Also in the evening, the government held a press conference, at which Defence Minister Pervez Khattak said that while doors for a dialogue with the opposition were open, “no one should even think about” negotiations on their demand for Imran’s resignation.

What is this new crisis in Pakistan?

This is the first major challenge to the government since Imran became Prime Minister in a controversial election said to have been manipulated in his favour by the Army in 2018. The protesters have rallied around Fazl-ur Rehman, and have the backing of major opposition parties.

Fazl-ur Rehman and his supporters say the 2018 election was unfair, and want Imran to step down. They are also angry with the state of Pakistan’s economy, which is currently facing among the worst crises in its history.

That said, no one believes that Fazl-ur Rehman’s motives are anything other than political. He has long been a operator in Pakistani politics, and has powerful ambitions of his own.

So, who exactly is Fazl-ur Rehman?

Fazl-ur Rehman, sometimes referred to in Pakistan as “Maulana Diesel”, is the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (F), where the ‘F’ stands for his first name. He is a hardline, rightwing Islamist politician of the kind that often receives significant public support in Pakistan.

He was a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly for a full three decades from 1988 to 2018, and was also Leader of Opposition during 2004-07 when Gen Pervez Musharraf was Pakistan’s President, and Shaukat Aziz of the PML(Q) was Prime Minister.

Fazl-ur Rehman has maintained close links with the Afghan Taliban, and has led several anti-US and pro-Taliban rallies and demonstrations in Pakistan over the years. He expressed scepticism about the terrorist attack on Nobel winner Malala Yousufzai in 2012, and called for the setting up of a “people’s court” to try Asiya Bibi, the Christian woman who was sentenced to death for blasphemy but ultimately released.

He has always been opposed to Imran, and ahead of the elections of 2013, he had declared that voting for Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf would be ‘haraam’ because Imran, according to him, was an “agent of Americans, Jews, Ahmadiyas, and a person of bad character”.

What is likely to happen now?

The bearded men swarming Islamabad since Thursday make for an intimidating spectacle, and while Maulana Diesel seems to have the support of the bulk of the Pakistani opposition, it does not appear likely at the moment that he would be able to force Imran from power.

Like always, the Army will have the final word on what happens in Pakistan. The last Azadi March in 2014, which was ironically led by Imran Khan (alongside a different maulana) who was at the time trying to dislodge Nawaz Sharif from power, had failed to achieve its objective because the Army had chosen not to back him at that moment. It is unlikely that the Army will now allow Imran’s government, which for all practical purposes a proxy for the generals, to be destabilised.

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