Troops were deployed on the streets of Islamabad and major roads sealed with shipping container barricades as the city awaited the arrival of thousands of protestors in what is seen as Prime Minister Imran Khan’s biggest political test yet.
Schools were closed and streets quiet as Pakistan’s capital braced for the culmination of a four-day Azadi march led by the Islamist JUI-F party.
The march by members of one of Pakistan’s largest Islamist parties has been led by its chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, an orange-turbaned political veteran.
He claims Mr Khan came to power 15 months ago in a fraudulent election backed by the powerful military and has since gone on to ruin the economy.
The march is also being seen as a test of the strength for opposition parties who have been fractured and cowed by the arrest and detention of their leaders in anti-corruption investigations. The country’s largest opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have lent support to the march, but their leadership has been absent from rallies along the way.
“The government will have to hand over power back to the people," Maulana Rehman told supporters on Wednesday evening. "They have destroyed the economy. When such devastation occurs, the country’s geography is forever changed."
The march was due to arrive in Islamabad late on Thursday. Under terms of an agreement with the government, marchers will be restricted to a site on the outskirts of the city, and unable to approach the city’s “red zone” which houses government ministries and institutions. Government officials have said the march will be allowed to pass peacefully if it keeps to the deal.
Mr Khan himself used similar displays to undermine the previous government as he campaigned against rampant corruption.
While the JUI-F has little electoral clout, its grassroots organisation and network of madrassahs is seen as a potent tool to mobilise street power.
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Maulana Rehman has flipped between successive governments for decades and was once a hardline Islamist and anti-American firebrand, calling for the implementation of Shariah law and backing the Afghan Taliban. More recently he has criticised the exoneration of Asia Bibi, a Christian farmhand freed after spending years on death row after a false blasphemy accusation.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Centre, said the idea of Maulana Rehman uniting the opposition “beggars belief”.
“Fazlur Rehman, with his incendiary talk and unsavory views, isn’t exactly a uniter or a natural born leader of a mass movement. PML/PPP support will be tenuous at best.”
He went on: “The Azadi March appears rather opportunistic and short-lived: A political figure’s desire to showcase the strength of his constituents and attract some attention before eventually calling it a day.”