Try to think of the last time you saw Maulana Fazlur Rehman on your television screen before the Azadi March.
The man with the orange turban and rude nickname had virtually disappeared from memory. He had been cooling his heels on the sidelines since he was defeated by PTI’s Ali Amin Gandapur in the 2018 elections.
Pakistani politics is a strange animal: You can be the head of your own faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam but if you don’t have a seat in parliament, you don’t matter much.
It was only with the Azadi March this November that the maulana found himself catapulted back onto prime time television.
His motivations? Look no further than his anger that Opposition parties have not been able to give the government a tough time—their democratically mandated job.
He holds the powerful Establishment responsible for diluting the Opposition’s powers. And now his Azadi March sit-in aims to topple Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government.
Toppling the government is what I had initially understood to be the whole point of the march. But when I set out to cover it as a reporter embedded with the JUI-F from Karachi on October 27, I began to suspect this was not his only goal. Background conversations with Opposition leaders suggested that Imran Khan was Fazlur Rehman’s secondary target.
Consider this: The leaders of Opposition parties, including Bilawal, have stated that they want a free and fair election with no soldiers near the polling booth. They believe that this just makes a national institution such as the army “controversial”.
On November 1, Fazl thus gave national institutions two days to stop backing the government to prove they were impartial. His speech drew a reaction from the army. Its spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor said that the army was an impartial institution and its support lay with the elected government.
This was the moment Fazl took a step back. I saw, on his container in Islamabad that his face showed signs of stress. Other political parties cooled off. The PML-N and PPP said that they would not become part of any sit-in.
This had not been the first setback. First, the maulana had misread signals, thinking that the Establishment (read: the most powerful group in Pakistan which can only be referred to euphemistically) was questioning making Imran Khan prime minister after he failed to deliver on some promises.
Political pundits in the capital believe that some people within the Establishment had assured Maulana Fazlur Rehman of support when he left Karachi for Islamabad. But the JUI-F leader should have thought twice before buying into this, an Islamabad-based reporter told me. A handful of miffed men were hardly going to bring down a government if the entire Establishment was backing it.
But perhaps this realization came a little too late and only by the time Maulana had reached Islamabad. The powers that be were still supporting the government.
A cautious government
For its part, Imran Khan’s government eyed the Azadi March cautiously. They knew that Fazlur Rehman’s actual power did not lie with his backdoor contacts but in his zealous mustard-clad party workers who would do anything on his orders. The best it could do to try to defuse the situation was turn to the Chaudhrys of Gujrat as mediators. They have twice tried to help the Establishment during Musharraf’s era—once with talks with Nawab Akbar Bugti and then with negotiations with Lal Masjid’s Abdul Rasheed Ghazi and Abdul Aziz Ghazi. Chaudhry Shujaat and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi met the maulana several times but he remained unmoved.
Now, Fazlur Rehman is expected to announce the next stage of his anti-government movement. It includes shutter-down strikes and blocking highways, according to sources in the JUI-F.
Political party stakes
As the news of the Azadi March was covered, many people, including social media users, questioned why liberal political parties, including the PPP and ANP, were supporting an Islamist leader such as Maulana Fazlur Rehman. The answer is simple: they don’t like Imran Khan’s government.
For starters, these parties, the PPP, ANP, and the centrist PML-N among others, believe that Imran Khan was engineered as prime minister and that is why you will hear leaders such as Bilawal use the word “selected” as a joke against “elected”.
These liberal parties are also unhappy with the prime minister because of his “anti-corruption” agenda that has targeted them mercilessly. They accuse the PM of using the National Accountability Bureau to especially target Opposition politicians. This is why the Opposition has been very nearly gutted out: Many prominent opposition leaders (Maryam, Nawaz, Zardari) have been put bars and dragged through the courts in long-running corruption cases.
There is another reason these political parties (PPP, ANP, PML-N) are backing an Islamist such as Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his JUI-F. He is doing what they cannot: get folks on the streets to agitate against the government.
The PPP could never get enough people to stage a sit-in in Islamabad because its support base has shrunk to Sindh, which is far away from the capital. The PML-N could have done something like this as it is still a major force in Punjab, but it can’t muster this street power in the absence of key leaders Nawaz Sharif and Maryam. As these two battle court cases and imprisonment, the next best thing is Nawaz’s brother Shehbaz Sharif. But as any politics reporter worth their salt will tell you, Shehbaz has never been in favour of confronting the Establishment.
This is why the PPP and PML-N at least find it convenient to support Fazl because he can at least rustle up some action.
A divided Pakistani media
As I made my way from Karachi to Islamabad, I kept following how the march was being covered. It became clear that Pakistan’s media was divided into two camps: pro-dharna and anti-dharna.
The anti-dharna group of journalists believes that an elected government should not be toppled through protests. They say this tantamount to insulting the people’s mandate.
This group had played an instrumental role in shaping public opinion in favour of Imran Khan before the 2018 election. It argues that no government should be sent home just because a few thousand people are protesting on the streets. It believes that this will hurt the future of democracy in the country. Ironically, many of them had supported Imran Khan when he staged a 126-day sit-in in Islamabad against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government in 2014.
On the road, I met prominent reporters and anchors who broadly fell in the pro-dharna category. Many of them were angry at Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government because they held him responsible for growing media censorship.
Hundreds of Pakistani journalists lost their jobs after Imran Khan became the prime minister and many of them complained that their TV channels were told to sack them because of their criticism of the government.
This group doesn’t necessarily support Maulana Fazl’s views or his vision, but for them their position against Imran Khan is a matter of survival. They don’t have many choices: There is an “illiberal democrat” (Maulana Fazlur Rehman) and an “authoritarian leader” (Imran Khan). They believe that pressure from Fazl will force PM Khan to change his style of governance.
What Fazl has achieved
Prime Minister Imran Khan won’t resign because the most powerful national institution in the country has reaffirmed its support for his government. But the stubborn Maulana says he won’t leave Islamabad without a resignation. He will, however, have to leave sooner or later. The only thing is: he won’t leave without something.
That “something” could be the assurance that his interests will be taken care of and his support base won’t be touched in the next election.
For whatever it is worth, Fazlur Rehman has managed one thing: to become a central character in a power game despite the presence of bigger political parties. He has also mobilised his workers. And he has shown us all that he can get together a big crowd at any time and march on to the capital if he doesn’t like what he sees there.
Roohan Ahmed is a senior reporter at SAMAA Digital. He covers politics, extremism and militancy.