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In Pakistan, Protesters Block Islamabad's City Center

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn to a tense situation in Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is facing what some say is the worst crisis in the years since he's been in power. People protesting his government have brought chaos to the capital Islamabad. Government employees have been unable to get to work because demonstrators have taken over part of the city center. NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad has more.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Mohammed Yusef is carrying a big stick. He has a gas mask around his neck, he's wearing pads on his elbows and knees, like a skateboarder, at his feet there's a pile of rocks. Yusef's ready for a fight, though he says only in self-defense. Yusef's stopping cars at a makeshift checkpoint in Pakistan's capital Islamabad, he's not a traffic cop or a soldier. He's an unemployed laborer with five kids.

MOHAMMED YUSEF: (Through translator) We are just fed up with this life. Everybody is fed up with this life.

REEVES: Yusef's illegal checkpoint is on Islamabad's Constitution Avenue in the nerve-center of Pakistan's federal government. Very close by stands Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister's residence. There are several other checkpoints here, controlled by other men with sticks. These are followers of Tahir ul-Qadri, a popular Islamic cleric. Nearly three weeks ago Qadri rolled into town at the head of a convoy with many thousands of supporters to demand what he calls a peaceful revolution. Roughly 7,000 are still here.

REEVES: Do you see this is a revolution?

ZAREENA KANWAL: Yes.

REEVES: Protester Zareena Kanwal says this sit-in is about getting a fair deal for Pakistan's multitude of poor.

KANWAL: People do not have bread to eat, they are starving. Even they are selling their selling their kidneys to buy bread.

REEVES: Pakistan has spent much of its short history under military rule. There's a lot of speculation that the military's covertly manipulating this protest to try to cut the civilian government down to size. The Army denies it and so does Kanwal.

KANWAL: No, no, no, no, no, no - no, no. It is not truth.

REEVES: It is not the truth?

KANWAL: No.

REEVES: Kanwal's standing inside the grounds of Pakistan's parliament. Protesters used a truck to ram through a gate the other day. They set up homemade tents - also here are supporters of ex-cricket star Imran Khan, a leading opposition politician. Khan says last year's election were massively rigged - he also led a convoy here to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Right now the mood's festive - last Saturday though violence erupted. Protesters broke into the offices of the state run TV network forcing it off the air for several hours. There were clashes with the police, three people were killed. This isn't the first blood to be shed during this peaceful revolution. In June police shot dead 14 of Qadri's supporters in the city of Lahore. Political analyst Ammara Durrani says a lot of Pakistanis actually agreed with the protester's message but she adds...

AMMARA DURRANI: I think the key question here has become how they have become conducting themselves, especially their attack on Parliament. You know, I think by-and-large everybody agrees that this is taking law into your own hands.

REEVES: Inside Parliament, lawmakers have spent the last two days debating the protests. The government has a big majority - most of the parliamentarians have no time for the protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHAUDHRY NISAR: (Speaking Urdu).

REEVES: These are not revolutionaries, says Interior Ministry Chaudhry Nisar, they're infiltrators and terrorist. Back on the streets outside, guarded by two men with Kalashnikovs, the campaigning cleric, Tahir ul-Qadri is also making a speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAHIR UL-QADRI: We just want democracy as a system, Democracy as a rule, Democracy as a culture, Democracy as a behavior.

REEVES: Qadri insists his movement opposes violence and terrorism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UL-QADRI: We are fighting for justice, for social economic justice.

REEVES: Qadri has no chance of winning this battle. His supporters have today reportedly agreed to get off Parliament's lawn. The authorities are trying to strike a deal that'll get them to go home but that's unlikely to be the end of this so-called revolution. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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