ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani army has been called in to secure the heart of the capital as a standoff between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and key opposition figures deepened Tuesday.
In a surprise move, Sharif has asked the military to assume responsibility for protecting key government buildings and diplomatic compounds in Islamabad amid protests calling for his resignation. The mobilization of the army to secure the “Red Zone” represents a dramatic move for Sharif, who has had an uncomfortable history with the army, including being ousted in a military coup in 1999 when he last served as prime minister.
But Sharif, who returned as premier after elections last year, is facing dual threats from Imran Khan, the leader of the Movement for Justice party, and firebrand cleric and religious scholar Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri.
Khan alleges the elections, in which Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N won the majority of seats in Parliament, were rife with fraud. Qadri accuses Sharif of being too slow in implementing political and economic reforms.
Both Khan and Qadri are calling for Sharif to step down and have mobilized thousands of supporters for several days of protests in Islamabad.
Although the Red Zone has been fortified with shipping containers and more than 10,000 police and paramilitary officers, Khan and Qadri have indicated that they plan to march on the high-security area as early as Tuesday night. The zone includes the Parliament building, the Supreme Court and the prime minister’s official residence.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan attributed the decision to deploy the army to the presence of foreign embassies and upscale hotels in the Red Zone.
“It is our international obligation and constitutional responsibility to protect the Red Zone,” he told reporters .
Yet, the interior minister said the move also could be interpreted as a sign that the powerful military was standing behind the premier. Sharif spent much of the afternoon huddled in his office with the army chief, Raheel Sharif, who is not related to the prime minister.
“I can tell you with authority that the army is not behind these protests,” Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said.
But the sight of troops patrolling key government buildings is likely to be controversial in a country that has experienced three military coups since its founding in 1947. In 1999, then-army chief Pervez Musharraf led the coup that ousted Sharif.
Since regaining power, however, Sharif has had to increasingly lean on the army for support. Last year, troops were called in to Rawalpindi — a city on the outskirts of Islamabad — to help curb a deadly clash between Sunnis and Shiites.
In June, after more than two dozen people were killed when the Taliban attacked the international airport in the port city of Karachi, Sharif authorized the army’s ongoing operation against Islamist militants in the country’s northwest. The army also was tasked with overseeing airport security nationwide.
It was not clear Tuesday evening whether the army’s mobilization in Islamabad will affect Imran Khan’s plans to expand his protests unless Sharif steps down.
Earlier Tuesday, he said on Twitter that he will lead his followers into the Red Zone in a “defining moment 4 Pakistan.”
On Monday night, the members of Khan’s party, also known as Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, announced they were resigning from the national assembly, where they hold 34 of 342 seats.
But Khan’s decision to push the country to the brink of crisis has spawned widespread criticism. Many observers say he has not provided sufficient evidence that last year’s elections were fraudulent.
“No sane person at home or abroad endorses his extreme demand” for Sharif’s resignation, Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies, said Tuesday on Twitter.
Zahid Khan, a senator from the Awami National Party, said Khan is harming the country’s fragile democracy.
“Imran Khan cannot bring down the government with a few thousand people’s protest on roads,” Zahid Khan said. “This is undemocratic and rather childish.”
Qadri, however, appears intent on a faceoff with the army. On Tuesday evening, he led his followers in a mass assembly, where they voted to shift their protest to Parliament in the coming hours.
Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.