The protest march led by Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri has electrified Pakistan by throwing a wrench into the government's plans for an orderly run-up to new elections.
But it also has raised a storm of questions about why the influential Muslim cleric is doing what he is doing, and whether he is working on his own or at the behest of others.
On January 15, Qadri, who is known internationally for his condemnation of terrorist groups, assembled a crowd outside the parliament building in Islamabad that the Pakistani media variously estimated at 30,000-50,000 people
For the crowd to disperse, Qadri said, the government would have to resign. He also demanded the formation of a caretaker administration that would be acceptable to all of the country's key players -- its political parties, judiciary, and military -- to take over the reins of government immediately and lead the way to the polls.
Some analysts suggest that Qadri's inclusion of the military has raised suspicions about his intentions even as his antigovernment protest voices widely-felt dissatisfaction with the current government's performance.
"There is already a lot of discontent in the country, so Qadri sort of exploited that sentiment with this march," says Raza Rumi, director of the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. "But the problem is that his demands are those which have always been articulated by the military in the past. So, basically, this is why there has been so much speculation in the media and elsewhere that Mr. Qadri might be acting on behalf of the military or might be wittingly or unwittingly contributing to their agenda."
Rumi notes that "all elections in Pakistan have been overseen by the military except in 1977, and even that government was annulled by a military dictator." The upcoming election, whose date has not yet been set, was expressly intended not to include the military as a key actor.
The speculation around Qadri's motives is increased by the fact that he has only recently returned to Pakistan after spending seven years based in Canada, where he heads a worldwide organization which promotes education in the Islamic sciences.
Qadri himself has not been active in politics since he founded a political party in 1989 and was elected to parliament under military leader General Pervez Musharraf in 2002. However, he resigned two years later, citing disillusionment, and his party currently has no members in the legislature.
Analyst Rasul Bakhsh Raees, a professor of politics at Lahore University of Management Sciences, says that Qadri espouses democratic principles that resonate with many in Pakistan who long for better governance.
But he maintains that the march to force the government to quit enables critics to level the same kinds of charges at Qadri that the cleric levels at the government.
"If an individual like him and people gathering in numbers cause a collapse of the government, this is not the way to go about reforming democracy," Raees says. "The best way to reform democracy is rule of law. But, unfortunately, rule of law has been a weak point of the government. They have not allowed institutions to function, like investigations against their own prime ministers and ministers, so they are responsible for the results of these actions."
Questions Over Funding
Not least among the mysteries surrounding Qadri is where he obtains his funds.
Media reports have buzzed with allegations that he receives outside support as he spent heavily on television advertising ahead of his march to drum up support. On January 12 "The New York Times" quoted one opposition senator as telling it privately that Qadri had spent some $4 million up to that point.
Qadri himself says that he articulates the demands of the dispossessed and that it is they alone who contribute to his cause.
As Qadri's protest marked its second day on January 15, he vowed that his supporters will stay in the capital until the government steps down.
Many of his supporters came to Islamabad equipped with blankets and slept in the streets of the capital after arriving late on January 14. Both the cleric and the government now seem prepared for a long siege.