Pakistan reaches new deal with radical Islamists, sparking criticism in the country

Imran Khan’s government has concluded negotiations with Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, the country's radical Islamist party, to end recent protests. More than 2,000 party members have been released from prison. Observers criticise the government for its failure to revive the country’s economy.

Islamabad (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Pakistani government has signed an agreement with Islamists to end protests and violence that broke out in the country in recent weeks.

The details of the negotiations have not been disclosed generating criticism from the opposition and several observers.

Two weeks ago, members of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right Islamist party, marched from Lahore to Islamabad on one of the country's busiest motorways.

At least seven police officers were killed in violent clashes with protesters that left more than a hundred people injured.

The TLP is demanding the release of their leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi, and the withdrawal of terrorism charges against the party.

Although the government concessions to radicals to end the clashes were not officially made public, leaks from local sources and government actions confirm them.

Yesterday, for example, the authorities released more than 2,000 TLP supporters arrested in April, when the party was outlawed and designated as a terrorist group.

In exchange the party dropped its demand that the French ambassador be expelled from the country over the satirical cartoons portraying the prophet Muhammad which the TLP considers blasphemous.

Now the Islamist party will also be able to take part in the next elections, slated for 2023.

For the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, this is not a new modus operandi.

The TLP and Pakistani authorities have clashed at least six times in the country’s recent history and critics lament the latter’s weakness vis-à-vis such radical groups, which hold the country at ransom for their demands.

For a number of observers, the desire to keep the deal secret and unbanning of a party banned only a few months ago by the same government that is now legitimising it again weakens Imran Khan’s position even more.

But the issue is not only ideological question, according to an editorial in the English-language Dawn newspaper.

Since the TLP enjoys huge support in cities, “We have to ask ourselves why is it so easy for any political party to bring so many people on to the streets for days at a stretch. Why is there no economic cost these protesters have to pay for taking to the streets for an indefinite period?”

Although Pakistan's economy has recovered slightly after the COVID-19 pandemic, with GDP up by 3.5 per cent, a recent report by the World Bank points out that imports have grown faster than exports, leading to a large trade deficit. To cope with this, “Pakistan needs to increase private investment and export more.”

However, since Imran Khan came to power, the cost of electricity is up by 49 per cent and that of gasoline by 57 per cent, while the prices of oil, flour and sugar are at their highest in the last 70 years.

Recently, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), at the request of the United States, decided withhold a US$ 1 billion tranche, because Washington first wants to secure Pakistan’s military and strategic cooperation against the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Pakistan could open its airspace to fight terrorists in Afghanistan in exchange for cash. This would be handy. For many analysts, Pakistan is in desperate need for IMF money to keep the economy afloat.

Hence, with respect to the TLP’s popularity, “It is too simplistic to believe that only ideology is at work,” concludes Dawn editorial. The “state cannot and should not be blamed for simply encouraging religiosity – it needs to be held accountable for not offering anything else.”