Why did the Pakistani government sanction protests?

Analysts say the decision by the Pakistani government to sanction a special day for protests was a political move to draw support from a public that has larger frustrations with the US.

By , Correspondent

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    Protesters hold banners and flags while taking part in an anti-American protest rally to mark the 'Day of Love' in Karachi, Pakistan, September 21. Muslim protests against insults to the Prophet Mohammad turned violent in Pakistan, where at least fifteen people have been killed on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, but remained mostly peaceful in Islamic countries elsewhere.
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Thousands of members of political parties and Islamist groups took to the streets on Friday across Pakistan to take part in government-sanctioned protests against the anti-Islamic movie that has prompted protests across the Muslim world.

Though it was dubbed a “day of love for the prophet” by the Pakistani government this week in an effort to stem the chances of protests getting out of hand, reports indicate that at least fifteen people have lost their lives as the protests turned violent today.

Analysts point out that the decision by the Pakistani government to sanction a special day for protests, which have been ongoing throughout the week, highlights the complex inner workings of Pakistani politics and larger frustrations with the US. 

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Upcoming elections have played a key role in the government's decision to allow the protests to happen at a time when they “[should] calm people, not officially give them an extra day to go to the streets” says the assistant editor of Pakistan's The News, Mehreen Zahra-Malik.

“The government thinks that tapping into the outrage over this film is the best way to get on the right side of the public. For a government that has failed in every major way that a voter would care about – governance, power, jobs, security – flashing its Islamic credentials may seem like the prudent thing to do,” says Ms. Zahra-Malik.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is concluding a three-day visit to Washington highlighting the Pakistani government’s desire to maintain cordial relations with the US. 

Still, anti-American sentiment has been especially high this week as protests have been taking place. On Sunday crowds broke through a barricade near the US consulate in the southern city of Karachi, and on Wednesday protestors marched outside of the diplomatic enclave that houses the US Embassy in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

Surprising observers on Thursday, thousands marched in Islamabad and attempted to break into the heavily-guarded enclave, prompting the Pakistani government to call in the Army to protect the area. International and local media outlets called the Thursday protests violent, though BBC correspondent Aleem Maqbool noted that as soon as the sun set they “turned out like a light.”

The ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has “capitulated before the forces of the right in what is fast becoming a policy of appeasement and retreat,” says Zahra-Malik who adds that it is a particularly poor decision considering that the party lost its leader, the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, “to the same violence and extremism that it is today retreating and surrendering to.” 

The Islamist group responsible for raiding the US Consulate in Karachi on Sunday might have been operating on the same logic. The little known Islamic political group, the Shia Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen Pakistan, had been planning to register with the Election Commission of Pakistan, in an effort to participate in elections slated for next year. The frustrations surrounding the anti-Islam movie gave it an opportunity to propel itself onto the national stage, according to Zahra-Malik.

“Outbursts of rage in Pakistan, as elsewhere, often bring with them mighty political dividends for political and radical groups,” wrote Zahra-Malik in a recent column for The News.  

The protests are taking place within the larger context of frustration toward the US, say analysts.

Ties between the US and Pakistan reached a nadir, after a series of events that ratcheted tensions last year, including a perceived breach of sovereignty with the US raid on the Osama bin Laden compound in May 2011, and the airstrikes against a Pakistani border outpost, which resulted in the killing two dozen border soldiers. Pakistan closed its borders to truck convoys supplying US and NATO troops in Afghanistan last November and were only reopened in July.

Pakistan's security establishment has been blamed for abetting Islamist groups within Pakistan to uphold what they believe is the country's national security interests – including strategic depth in Afghanistan and resistance to India – as the US plans to withdraw its forces in 2014. And some see the protests as another platform for that. 

The former Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Hamid Gul reminded protesters of “24 young Pakistani soldiers who were killed at the border check-post in November.” 

In a conversation with the Christian Science Monitor, he called on the Pakistani government to close down the NATO supply routes again, and criticized attempts by the government to have closer ties to the US.

The US government paid private Pakistani TV stations $70,000 to air a message from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Pakistani people. The larger frustrations with US foreign policy in Pakistan and the region expressed by those present at the demonstrations indicate that the message will only have a limited effect on calming the protests.

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