View from Washington: D-Chowk is no Tahrir Square, at least not yet
In Washington, Tahirul Qadri’s D-chowk is not seen as comparable to Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It is not yet seen as an event that could bring about a major political change in Pakistan, as the Tahrir Square did in Egypt.
The uprising in Cairo had the entire American nation in its grips. For weeks, it was front page news in all major newspapers in the United States and also dominated all big television channels.
The popularity of the demand for a change forced the Obama administration to use its influence to persuade former Egyptian president Hosni Mobarak to step down. The US administration also had a role in preventing the powerful Egyptian military from using force against the protesters.
Also for weeks, the developments in Cairo remained a key subject in daily news briefings at the White House, State Department and Pentagon.
Compared to this, Dr Qadri’s march has not yet caught the attention of the American public. Some newspapers did report the event but carried only news agency copies on their inside pages. The electronic media also showed little interest.
Spokespersons at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon offered no comments and even journalists did not raise the issue at regular news briefings.
There was no emergency meeting of the president’s security cabinet, as was held during the Egyptian uprising, and there’s no indication that Washington plans to send an official to Islamabad to learn more about the Qadri march.
The general feeling at Washington’s think tanks, and in diplomatic circles, is that President Asif Ali Zardari will survive this crisis as well, as he did other similar crises in the recent past.
Experts on Pakistan affairs at Washington’s think tanks say that even if Mr Zardari is forced to step down, there will be no military takeover. Instead, the military will prefer to bring an interim government of technocrats and back it from behind the scene.
Washington will react angrily if there’s a military takeover and may impose strict economic sanctions, which the Pakistani military would want to avoid at all cost. They realise that any sanction at this stage will have disastrous consequences for the Pakistani economy.
But the US reaction to a civilian change will likely be mild, particularly now when the present government has almost completed its tenure.
Diplomatic observers in Washington say that the Obama administration will make no effort to push or protect Mr Zardari. Like most Pakistanis, the Americans also see Mr Zardari as a corrupt and unpopular leader and will not like to be identified with him. But they will also not like to be seen as working against an elected government.
While the US administration is treading cautiously, Pakistanis living in America are not. The long march dominates all conversations at community gatherings, with some welcoming it as a move that may end a corrupt government while others opposing it as a development that will increase the influence of religion in politics.
“Another cleric, seeking a piece of the political pie, this is definitely not a welcome development,” said Mohsen Bashir Awan of Falls Church, Virginia, when asked to comment. “People need food, clothes, homes, jobs and electricity, not another fake change.”
“Even an MPA needs 60,000 voters to get elected and Mr Qadri wants to topple the government with 50,000 people,” said Agha Raza Ali of Brookfields, Virginia. “Pakistan has established political parties, they will not allow a new entrant to steamroll them.”
Zahid Ali of Germantown, Maryland, believes “this will pass. Nobody, least of all the army, wants to topple Mr Zardari so close to the election. This will be a big political concession to him.”
But Abdur Rauf, also of Brookfields, Virginia, said “those who have come from across Punjab for this dharna, will not leave like this. This is the end of the Zardari government.”
Shahid Husain of Washington suggested that Dr Qadri was brought because “Imran Khan failed to play his role. Mr Zardari and Nawaz Sharif played him well. So a dark horse was brought in.”
Some commentators suggested that the protest will lead to the formation of a supra-judicial body to supervise the government and the Chief Justice will head this body after retirement.
Others suggested that now was the time for Bilawal Zardari to become active and challenge Dr Qadri, although they also acknowledged that he was too young to do so.
Najma Siddiqi, another Pakistani living in Washington, said she learned from “a senior person in Pakistan about 12 months ago that things will get better. The process will not be disrupted, but ‘we will get good people’.”