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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 / September 21, 2012

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.

Athar Hussain/Reuters

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Islamabad

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.

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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. 

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.” 

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