ISLAMABAD // It had all the elements of a classic coup – thousands descending on the capital, clashing with police outside parliament and commandeering state TV to demand the ousting of a civilian leader who had locked horns with the military.
But when the tear gas cleared in Islamabad in August, Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif remained in office with the support of the entire parliament. The troops were still in their barracks, and the protesters had dwindled to a few thousand – their “revolution” confined to a festive, shrinking tent camp.
The uprising led by former cricket star Imran Khan and cleric Tahir ul Qadri failed to overthrow Mr Sharif, but it did rattle the conventional view of Pakistan as a tottering state perpetually leaning on an all-powerful army.
“Parliament’s unanimous support for Nawaz Sharif played a key role in saving democracy in Pakistan,” political analyst Mahdi Hasan said.
Mr Khan and Mr Qadri had accused Mr Sharif of massive fraud in the 2013 election that brought him to office in Pakistan’s first-ever democratic transfer of power. International monitors reported irregularities in the vote, but have not questioned the outcome.
Beyond the voting allegations, Mr Khan and Mr Sharif are longtime political opponents, while Mr Qadri holds Mr Sharif personally responsible for the deaths of 14 of his supporters in clashes with police in Lahore in June.
At the peak of the protests in August some 70,000 people thronged the heart of the capital.
On August 30, the demonstrators burst through security barricades and clashed with police outside parliament. The police fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Three people were killed in the melee and another 500 – including police – were wounded.
The military, which had troops deployed to back the police, might have chosen that moment to side with the protesters and push for the ousting of Mr Sharif.
After all, the army overthrew Mr Sharif in 1999, ending his previous stint as prime minister.
More recently, the army had clashed with him over his decision to bring a treason case against Pervez Musharraf, the general who had ousted him, and his support for a private TV channel that accused the country’s spy chief of trying to kill its top anchor.
But instead of sweeping Mr Sharif from power, Pakistan’s powerful army chief Gen Raheel Sharif met with the protest leaders to try to convince them to resolve the impasse.
Critics of the protesters say the military should have intervened to disperse them.
Defence analyst Talat Masood said the army’s “reluctance to forcefully resolve the crisis encouraged the demonstrators”.
The army says it deployed troops to protect government buildings but that it was up to the 30,000 police and paramilitary groups – who take orders from government – to handle crowd control.
In the end, most of the protesters left on their own.
Mr Qadri officially ended his sit-in in Islamabad this week. While Mr Khan’s supporters remain, it is unclear whether the crowds of mainly college students that swell in the evenings are drawn there for political reasons or to hang out and hear popular singers who regularly perform at the rallies.
Mr Sharif’s government has said it is ready to let Mr Khan use an open-air theatre to “entertain their supporters”.
Most of Mr Khan’s supporters in parliament, where his Tehreek-e-Insaf party had been the third largest bloc, have resigned from the assembly.
And Javed Hashmi, who was president of Mr Khan’s party, broke with him over the decision to march on the prime minister’s house on August 30. Like other critics, he raised the specter of military involvement in the protests, alleging Mr Khan had endangered democracy.
Both Mr Khan and Mr Qadri have denied conspiring with the military.
Still, the protests have not been a complete failure. In August, Mr Sharif announced the formation of a judicial commission to probe the vote rigging allegations.
Mr Khan and Mr Qadri have rejected the commission, but Ishaq Dar, the chief government negotiator in talks with the protesters, says Mr Sharif will step down if the commission finds that the election was fraudulent.
“We will have no moral authority to remain in power if the commission finds us guilty of rigging the elections,” Mr Dar said.
* Associated Press