A waiting game in Pakistan as the clock ticks to midnight deadline for Sharif to step down

PTI supporters cheer on leader Imran Khan on Monday night in Islamabad.
PTI supporters cheer on leader Imran Khan on Monday night in Islamabad.
Image: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood
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The massive Pakistani anti-government protest movement that began last Thursday took a turn on Monday: A day after he called on the nation to engage in civil disobedience, opposition politician and former cricket star, Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice, or PTI) announced that he and his supporters would march into Islamabad’s ‘Red Zone’ if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not resign by the protesters’ imposed midnight deadline (Pakistan time).

The heavily guarded diplomatic enclave is where the prime minister’s house is located, in addition to the embassies of various countries; it is arguably the most secured area in the country.

Sharif’s government had asked the Supreme Court on Sunday to stop the protesters from entering the zone, but their request was rejected on Monday with Chief Justice Nasirul Mul saying that it was “something for the government to handle.” The government had vowed to stop any move into the area, which could set up a bloody confrontation tomorrow.

“Civil disobedience is a powerful yet peaceful way to acquire freedom. I will be ahead of everyone as we enter the Red Zone tomorrow,” said Khan on Monday night, to a noticeably smaller crowd than on previous nights, according to news reports.

The announcement came only hours after PTI’s vice chairman, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, announced that the party would be resigning its 34 seats from the 343-member National Assembly, where it has the third largest presence. Only in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the party leads a coalition government, would the party keep its seats.

Meanwhile, the controversial Pakistani-Canadian cleric, Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party, who staged a parallel march to Islamabad with supporters last week, has also demanded that the government step down by midnight and called for a “grand expansion” of the protests to other parts of the country.

For the government, the challenge remains how to respond to the protests without resorting to violence, Karachi-based journalist Sarah Munir told Quartz. “It’s their best bet to make Imran lose at his own game.”