Political analysts believe that the army does not want to impose martial law but may favor a government of hand-picked civilians.
That’s where Qadri’s movement figures in. A mysterious figure, Qadri went into exile in Canada in 2006 and returned to Pakistan only last month. Many analysts were surprised at how rapidly he was able to gain public support and organize his protest movement, suggesting that the military must somehow be involved.
The army, headed by Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has denied being behind Qadri, and there are no proven links between the cleric and the military.
Still, many saw evidence of a connection. Ayaz Amir, a member of Parliament for the main opposition party, said the fact that the army had not stopped the protesters from entering Islamabad showed it already had chosen sides. The army maintains a special unit, the 111 Brigade, which can be deployed to quell trouble in Islamabad – or stage coups.
“The test of nerves between the protesters and the government now begins. The initiative is in Qadri’s hands,” said Amir. “Kayani has, very visibly, taken a hands-off approach.”
Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based group, said that it would be “extremely naive” to believe that the Supreme Court’s arrest order and the protest were coincidences.
“Either the military is complicit with the protesters, or the protesters are enabling the military, by demanding a subversion of the constitutional order. And the court is triggering a constitutional crisis, just as Qadri makes his demands, with tens of thousands of people massed in the capital,” Hasan said.
Word of the court’s arrest order in an alleged kickback scheme dating to when Ashraf was minister of power came just as Qadri was firing up the crowd in Islamabad.
“Half our job is done. We’ll do the other half tomorrow,” Qadri boomed over the loudspeakers. “Victory, victory.”
A new military coup would be a major complication for the Obama administration, which would be barred by U.S. law from providing aid to the Pakistani military if it took power. The United States, however, will need the help of Pakistan’s military to ease its exit from Afghanistan, a task that President Barack Obama has said will be completed next year.