On January 14, Tahir-ul-Qadri, an influential cleric, led thousands of supporters to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, calling for the government to be dismissed.
Speaking to a crowd of protesters, Qadri - a Pakistani-Canadian - warned the Pakistani government to "dissolve assemblies immediately or face the people's wrath", insisting it set up a "neutral caretaker setup before elections" scheduled to take place sometime in the next few months.
Qadri's journey to Islamabad has been 30 years in the making. He has reportedly supported military dictatorships in the past and has been close to many political leaders, including the leader of Pakistan Muslim League (N) Nawaz Sharif. His religious organisation, Minhaj-ul-Quran International, offers free education to more than 100,000 students at 572 schools and colleges across Pakistan.
His latest foray into Islamabad has been as colourful and controversial as his background. Many are questioning his motives of returning to Pakistan from Canada, where he immigirated in 2004.
Pakistan FM backs parliament over fate of PM
Shahzad Raza, a reporter for The Friday Times, told Al Jazeera that "no one knows why the cleric came back to Pakistan at this crucial juncture". But "one thing is clear: he is part of a wider agenda", he said. Raza in fact believes Qadri has the support of elements within the military. "Without their support, no one can move in to Islamabad," he said.
Some, however, say Qadri has emerged as a "phenomenon" in response to an existential crisis many Pakistanis find themselves in.
"Qadri captured a mood of frustration and dissatisfaction in Pakistan. Law and order has collapsed, there is no electricity, no jobs. Also, the situation on the eastern and western borders has people worried," Akbar S Ahmed, the author of Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, told Al Jazeera.
If true, Qadri could be said to be Pakistan's version of Indian social activist Anna Hazare, whose campaign across the border against graft last year tapped into a groundswell of popular disenchantment and triggered unprecedented protests.
And as with Hazare's campaign that earned the displeasure of the Indian establishment, Qadri's movement has fallen foul with entrenched political forces in Pakistan.
Hina Rabbani Khar, from the ruling Pakistan People's Party and the country's foreign minister, gave out the measure of government's irritation with Qadri. "So who the hell is he? Who is he to be able to come and tell us, who have worked so hard on fixing the system?" she told Al Jazeera rather uncharacteristically.
On a recent cold evening in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif was equally sharp in his criticism, saying "We will not let democracy be derailed".
"People should refrain from making any demands which are not in the ambit of the constitution," said Sharif. "Only the people of Pakistan have the right to decide who they choose to be their representatives in parliament. They will exercise this constitutional right in elections."
As thousands thronged Qadri's rally, many others who stayed away have been prompted to question Qadri's motives.
Coming amid fresh border skirmishes with India along the disputed Kashmir border, renewed attacks against the Shia Hazara community in Balochistan province, and heightened political uncertainty in Islamabad unleashed by the Supreme Court's order to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf over a disputed government deal, many see a sinister design in Qadri's timing of the march.
"It's too much of a coincidence," says Faisal Sabzwari, a leading figure in the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). "One will have to be too naïve to think all of this is random... There are unknown forces trying to corner the federal government."
"The army doesn’t have the institutional appetite for another military coup. Without political cover it’ll be impossible for the army to deal with the situation."
- Babar Sattar, constitutional lawyer
The MQM had initially supported Qadri's long march, but backed off later.
Sabzwari says his party doesn't want to derail the democratic project in order to correct it. "That's why we backed off from Qadri's long march. The system needs to continue, despite its many flaws."
Political chaos in Pakistan has a lot to do with the impatient nature of its middle class, Babar Sattar, a constitutional lawyer, told Al Jazeera. During troubled times, Sattar explained, the middle class, which includes professional and business interests, looks to the armed forces for help. "They consider the politicians crooks and get impatient with democracy. It's a shared sentiment with the middle rank of the army. Whoever was backing Qadri was banking on this discontent."
In the next few months, a civilian government will complete its full five-year term for the first time in Pakistan's history, a considerable milestone given Pakistan's history of military coups.
The accomplishment has much to do with the country's demographic shifts: today, 65 percent of Pakistan's 190 million people are under the age of 25. More Pakistanis now live in urban areas than they did a decade ago. And new political challengers have emerged to take advantage of this dramatic demographic swing.
"The discourse is changing because independent power-brokers have emerged," said Sattar, referring to an evolved judiciary, new political players, and a thriving media and civil society.
"The old guard has also become sensible," Sattar explained. "The army doesn’t have the institutional appetite for another military coup. Without political cover it’ll be impossible for the army to deal with the situation."
For the time being, Pakistan's fragile government has survived the threat from Qadri. The cleric agreed to call off the protest after reaching a symbolic deal with the government he had set out to remove.
Qadri's turnaround raises more questions about him. He has proven to be a crowd puller. But he hasn't answered questions about either his motives and means yet.
Source: Al Jazeera