ISLAMABAD: Commuters were jubilant Tuesday as a main highway into Islamabad reopened three weeks after a sit-in blocked it, as uneasy soul-searching grew among many Pakistanis over the government’s capitulation to the protest demands.
The Islamabad Highway, used daily by thousands traveling from the garrison city of Rawalpindi into the Pakistani capital, was back to normal Tuesday, with traffic flowing, shops open, and sanitation workers cleaning up the mess left behind by the protesters.
The previously little-known hard-line group Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLY) had virtually paralyzed Islamabad, where there is little in the way of public transportation.
Drivers were forced to go hours out of their way on overcrowded, potholed side roads unsuited for heavy traffic.
“Everything clear and moving. Its (sic) good to be back in route,” commuter Nauman Naseer posted on a Facebook traffic updates group.
But joy on the roads was dampened for many Pakistanis by fear that a dangerous precedent has been set.
TLY had demanded the resignation of Pakistan’s Law Minister Zahid Hamid over a small, hastily reversed amendment to the oath election candidates must swear.
The demonstrators had linked the change to blasphemy, a hugely sensitive charge in conservative Muslim Pakistan.
The government was forced to seek help from the military — widely seen as the country’s most powerful institution — after a bungled attempt to clear the sit-in over the weekend devolved into deadly violence and ignited fresh protests in cities across the country including Lahore and Karachi.
The law minister resigned on Monday, with protest leaders saying the government would meet all their demands in a deal the army helped broker.
“It is a surrender so abject that the mind is numb and the heart sinks,” wrote the country’s leading English newspaper Dawn in a blistering editorial on the deal titled “Capitulation.”
“Something profound changed in the country yesterday and the reverberations will be felt for a long time.”
But Daily Jang, the country’s largest Urdu-language newspaper, praised the outcome and role of the military — especially army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa — in ending the protest.
The Islamabad High Court on Monday demanded a full accounting of the agreement and the part played by the military.
Many of the protesters chanted “Long live the Pakistan Army!” as they dispersed, AFP reporters saw.
A viral video showing what appeared to be a Pakistani paramilitary officer handing out envelopes of cash to protesters inspired wide media coverage and scathing comments on Facebook and Twitter against the deal and the military’s role in it.
Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi returned to the country Tuesday, Pakistan’s information minister said, after flying to Saudi Arabia Monday for a long-planned trip as the deal was announced.
Analysts have warned that the decision to bow to the Islamists’ demands has eroded the government’s authority and set a disturbing new precedent in which fringe groups can bend the state to their will by citing blasphemy.