PM Khan is returning home Monday night after spending 4 days in China
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is returning home to a deepening political crisis, with pressure mounting over a deal struck with the religious group that analysts say has eroded faith in his government.
PM Khan spent the last four days on a state visit to China, trying to win some desperately needed relief for his country’s parlous finances, as his homeland fractured over the fate of Aasia Bibi — a Christian woman cleared of blasphemy charges last week by the Supreme Court.
The overturning of her conviction, which Pakistan’s top judges ruled was based on flimsy evidence, ended Bibi’s eight year ordeal on death row.
But it enraged religious groups who took to the streets, blockaded major cities and demanded her immediate execution.
The protests were only brought to an end once the PTI government agreed to a deal with the protesters, where Bibi would remain in Pakistan while a final review of the Supreme Court’s ruling takes place.
Many critics saw the climbdown as another capitulation to religious groups who called for the assassination of the country’s Supreme Court justices and mutiny against the army’s top brass in the ruling’s wake.
“The government seems to be directionless and it does not seem to have a proper strategy,” said analyst Fasi Zaka.
“The government has just bought time and we’re still waiting to see what they do.”
– Praise dissipates –
Only a few days earlier, PM Khan had been riding a wave of positive energy.
Shortly before his departure for China he delivered a speech vowing to confront the protesters head on, winning widespread praise from those detractors who had long accused him of courting religious groups and for defending the blasphemy laws.
The protests calling for Bibi’s execution were being headed by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, which is known for whipping up anger over blasphemy and successfully achieved a minister’s resignation under the previous administration in 2017 by blockading roads into Islamabad for more than three weeks.
Many critics of PM Khan noted that it was the second time his young administration had folded to TLP demands after his government sacked an economics advisor belonging to the persecuted Ahmadi religious minority following pressure from its outspoken leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi.
“The government must act against the TLP to sustain its popularity,” added security analyst Amir Rana. “The government looks weak and fragile.”
The deal has left Bibi in legal limbo and her family fearing for her safety. Her husband has appealed for Britain or the United States to grant the family asylum while her lawyer has fled overseas.
– Fear of backlash –
The government continued to defend the deal Monday, saying the agreement had averted violence.
“We dispersed them in a peaceful way which is an achievement,” Information Minister Fawad Chaudry told reporters.
Analysts said Khan’s government had little strategy in place for following through on the vow to confront the protests, which were quickly snow-balling.
“I think there’s a huge fear of a backlash,” said analyst Zahid Hussain, adding that the army also did not appear to support a potential crackdown.