Imran Khan

When they first arrived on Islamabad’s sprawling Kashmir Highway three weeks ago, the anti-government protesters were burning with the desire to tear down the citadels of power – and make short work of it.

They looked around, saw what seemed like a million heads as their leaders had predicted, and punched the air harder, shouting: “Down with Nawaz Sharif”.

But Pakistan’s prime minister is still in place.

Most of them have since lost interest and left the scene. Others, who still feel obliged to hang on, keep asking journalists: “Will it end soon? Will talks succeed?”

The army ‘umpire’

Across the fence, beyond the shipping containers which are piled one over the other to create hurdles for protesters, saunter weary-looking, bored policemen.

Anti-government protesters listen to a speech by their leader Tahir ul-QadrIThe protesters in Islamabad are getting tired

The days when thousands of them shuffled into line and beat their batons against their glass shields to create the overawing sound of battle are behind them.

Their only wish now seems to be that the government gives them orders to finish the job and go home.

Most of them have been shipped to Islamabad from hundreds of miles away, leaving behind their families, clothing, toiletries and daily routines. And it has been more than a month.

The key to defuse the confrontation between these two sets of adversaries lies in the hands of their respective mobilisers – one controlling the seat of power, the other lodged in two shipping containers parked side-by-side on the road outside.

Pakistan riot policemen sit on top of shipping containers, used as roadblocks leading to Prime Minister HouseShipping containers have been deployed by all sides during this crisis

There may be a third contender to the issue – the “umpire” – if one is to believe Imran Khan, one of the leaders in the containers.

He has been elusive about what exactly he means when he talks about the “umpire” but most Pakistanis understand this to be a reference to the country’s military.

This scene in Islamabad illustrates yet again the enigma that the Pakistani state has become for many around the world.

It is seen as a country marred by perpetual political instability, militant attacks, a separatist insurgency across more than 40 per cent of its landmass, and a country that is eternally on the verge of economic collapse.

Imran Khan has taken his seat in a container on the streets of Islamabad

But it is also a country which has not descended into anarchy, can beat militancy at will, whose claim of being a “responsible” nuclear power is taken seriously in international power centres, and which continues to compete with India – which is ten times bigger – for strategic one-upmanship in the South Asian region.

A coup history

In the 1970s, and again in the 1990s, there were widespread protests across important urban centres aiming to bring down elected governments.

In 1976, the bone of contention was the election, which the opposition alleged was rigged. In the 1990s, the protests mostly centred on the allegations of corruption.

On all those occasions, the governments were toppled. In 1977, we had a military coup. During the 1990s, presidents backed by the military used special constitutional powers to topple four elected governments one after the other.

Pakistan Army Soldiers climb gates of Pakistan TV headquarters during coup to remove democratically elected government - October 12 1999Nawaz Sharif was ousted by a military coup in 1999

The present stand-off more closely resembles the 1977 model, where the president did not have the special powers to sack the government, and so the military must stage a direct coup if it wants to intervene.

But a coup has not come, even though the military has kept to its pattern of the 1990s; instead of throwing its weight behind the government, it has made noises that amount to providing both players with what some analysts call a “level playing field”.

So as the protesters and the policemen slug it out on the streets, it is the role of the army that has been central to most debates in parliament, the two shipping containers, the media and the drawing rooms of the chattering classes.

Government not isolated

Police officer speaks to a gathering of policemen brought to the capital Islamabad as reinforcements during Revolution March in IslamabadPolicemen were shipped from hundreds of miles

The two protesting leaders have separate agendas.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s PTI party wants “freedom” from what it sees as a faulty electoral system. It accuses Prime Minister Sharif’s government of having stolen last year’s elections, wants it to quit and wants fresh elections, but after electoral reforms.

In the neighbouring container, cleric Tahirul Qadri is espousing a wider, “revolutionary” agenda; he wants “moral reforms” which would be undertaken by a set of “clean” individuals holding state power over a longer period of time.

Pakistan's fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, second left, gestures while delivering his speech during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tahirul Qadri is espousing a more “revolutionary” agenda

He also wants the Punjab chief minister’s scalp for the 14 June police action in which 16 of his disciples were killed.

The calls from the two leaders for the government’s ousting have fallen on deaf ears, and have led the ruling and opposition forces in parliament to close ranks. This is unlike the 1990s, when opposition forces tended to gravitate to the protesters, isolating the government.

So the residents of Islamabad, the audiences of the Pakistani news channels all over the country and the world are witnessing an extended version of what former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, used to call the “political circus”.

Every day has the same grinding pattern now.

Supporters of Pakistani Muslim cleric Tahirul Qadri wash their clothes on the premises of the Parliament building during an anti-government protestCleric Qadri supporters wash their clothes at the Parliament building

It begins with the parliamentarians in their rhetorical speeches warning against threats to democracy from the “container leaders” and the “institutions” – a euphemism for the military.

The night begins with hyperbole from the “container leaders” calling the parliamentarians “thieves” and reiterating their resolve to stand their ground until the “umpire” lifts his finger, as in a cricket match when a batsman is declared out.

Meanwhile, the protesters and the policemen have their eyes and ears on the on-again-off-again talks.

A PTI leader said yesterday the government has agreed to 5.5 out of his party’s six demands. Others say a rapprochement with Mr Qadri is also on the cards.

But many are of the view that a resolution will come quickly once a set of completely different issues – concerning national security and regional policy – are settled with the country’s “umpire”.