ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan avoided a political confrontation on Monday when officials reopened a key national highway that supporters of a militant Islamist group had occupied for days, following a secret pact between the government and the group.
The agreement defused a crisis that had left the country reeling in recent days, the latest in a series of debilitating clashes with hardline Islamists protesting as perceived blasphemy. But it also illustrated the growing influence and power of such groups, including Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, or TLP, which Pakistan banned as a terrorist organization in April, and the weak civilian government’s struggle to prevail amid economic woes and rising inflation.
“The fact that the government has reached an ‘agreement’ with the TLP does not mean that such a public protest against blasphemy will not raise its head again,” said Saad Rasool, a constitutional lawyer and newspaper columnist.
After a multi-day violent confrontation with TLP members that left four police officers dead, the Pakistani government announced on Sunday that it had reached an agreement with the group, but did not disclose the terms publicly. Many of the group’s supporters remained on the national highway, hoping to pressure the government to deliver on the promises made in the agreement.
The latest clash began on October 21, when thousands of TLP supporters began marching towards Islamabad from Lahore, 240 miles away. They demanded the release of the group’s leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi, who was arrested in April, and the withdrawal of terrorism charges against hundreds of its members.
The group also demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador for cartoons published in France depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan agreed to put the issue of expulsion to a parliamentary vote last spring, but did not comply.
Violent clashes last week between protesters and police left four officers dead and another 114 officers injured, some seriously.
After the police were unable to arrest the protesters, many of them armed, paramilitary troops were called in to quell the violence.
By Friday, the protesters were camped along a key national highway, a part of Grand Trunk Road that is approximately 100 miles south of Islamabad, where paramilitary troops warned them not to advance further.
The Khan government initially took a tough stance, and some cabinet ministers said the protest would not be tolerated. The protesters paid little attention and vowed to move on.
The unrest brought several cities to a standstill in Punjab province as authorities used shipping containers to barricade roads and blocked internet services. Businesses closed around Grand Truck Road, one of the busiest national highways and an artery to several industrial cities. Supply lines were drowned, authorities said, affecting food aid drives to neighboring Afghanistan.
As fears grew of an escalation of violence over the weekend, hectic meetings took place between the government and TLP, negotiated by high-level religious figures.
On Sunday afternoon, Mufti Muneebur Rehman, an influential clergyman who acted as TLP’s guarantor, and grim-looking cabinet ministers addressed a press conference in Islamabad to reveal the deal.
“This is not a victory or defeat for either party,” Rehman said, adding that details of the deal would be made public later.
As part of the pact, the terms of which were widely reported by local media, TLP dropped its demand that Pakistan cut diplomatic ties with France. In return, the government agreed to release the group’s members who had been imprisoned and not to press new charges against the group’s leaders. He also agreed to lift his ban against the group.
Opposition leaders demanded more clarity.
Among them was Sherry Rehman of the Pakistan People’s Party, who wrote on Twitter: “What is the agreement reached and why will it be released at the ‘appropriate time’? Peace with the state on what terms? “
Arif Rafiq, President of Vizier Consulting, A political risk advisory firm in New York, said protests in Pakistan over blasphemy date back to the 1970s and described TLP as a problem for the government that it will not solve easily.
“There is no overnight solution to the Labaik challenge,” he said. “It is a niche group with strong grassroots appeal in the main population centers of Pakistan. And he is able to take advantage of that support both on the street and at the polls. “
Mr. Rasool, the constitutional attorney, said: “The state of Pakistan, in partnership with moderate clerics, must find a concerted narrative of non-violence against blasphemous events.”
Sunni Muslims, especially from the Barelvi sect, who make up the majority of Pakistan’s population, view depictions of the Prophet Muhammad as blasphemous. The perceived insults have sparked angry protests and mass violence.
TLP has channeled this anger within the Pakistani population and has become a powerful force in recent years, with its ability to organize violent protests and rallies. The recent protest was at least his sixth major run-in with the government.
The potency of the threat posed by the TLP does not go unnoticed by Pakistani civilian and military leaders.
In a briefing on Friday night at the headquarters of the country’s spy agency in Islamabad, senior security officials and cabinet ministers told a group of journalists, including The New York Times, that the state could not allow it to an armed group will challenge your government. But they appeared fearful of a confrontation between the protesters and the paratroopers, who fall under the army’s chain of command.
Citing the potential for violence if armed troops were to confront protesters, a senior intelligence official said such a crackdown would be imposed only as a last resort.