ISLAMABAD – A Pakistan opposition politician says he'll lead thousands of protesters into the capital's high-security "Red Zone" as his 48-hour deadline for the government to step down ends.
Imran Khan, a former cricket legend who heads parliament's third-largest political bloc, made the announcement Monday at a rally in Islamabad calling for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to step down over alleged voting fraud.
The `Red Zone' houses diplomatic posts, parliament, government offices and the presidential and prime ministerial palaces. Khan said the protest will begin Tuesday and that demonstrators will be peaceful, but it raises the possibility of a violent confrontation.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has repeatedly said no one would be allowed to enter the high security zone, which is protected by police and blocked off with shipping containers.
Twin protests demanding the Pakistani government step down have wreaked havoc in the capital, Islamabad, where commuters must circumvent shipping containers and barbed wire to get to work, protesters knock on people's doors to use the bathroom, and garbage is piling up.
"People are talking of revolution but (they) don't care about the difficulties we are facing due to this situation," said Zafar Habib, a 56-year-old government employee in Islamabad.
Tens of thousands of people have descended on the capital in recent days, answering the call from cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan and anti-government cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri to push for the government's ouster. Both claim widespread fraud in the May 2013 vote and want new elections, something the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is not likely to concede.
Both Khan and Qadri have vowed to remain in the streets with their supporters until Sharif leaves office, raising fears of political instability in the nuclear-armed nation, which only saw its first democratic transfer of power last year.
The protests have taken a strain on the city of roughly 1.7 million inhabitants, many of whom work for the government, embassies, or non-governmental organizations. The difficulties began last Wednesday, when the government started to beef up security, and show no signs of letting up in the next few days.
The most affected neighborhoods have been in the eastern part of the city where the protests have been centered, not too far from the so-called "Red Zone" and a diplomatic enclave that house government offices, embassies and other sensitive installations.
Residents say protesters -- mostly women -- knock on their doors early in the morning, hoping to use their bathrooms.
"This is frustrating! I and other residents were trying to accommodate the women but then today some men also knocked on my door," said Sajid Khan, a real estate agent.
Male protesters have also been crowding the washrooms in local mosques or simply going into the nearby forests. Garbage is beginning to pile up as well.
"My main concern is the deteriorating hygienic condition. This will make us and our children ill," said retired government servant Jahangir Zahid.
Residents and people trying to get to work have also been stymied by both the protesters and the security measures the government has taken to deal with them. Early last week the government started putting up shipping containers to control access to and from the city. The hundreds of vehicles brought by protesters have also clogged the roads.
"I have to put in more hours and fuel to reach my office these days," said software engineer Adeel Ahmed.
While the crowds have fallen well short of the million marchers that both Khan and Qadri promised, their presence and the heightened security measures have virtually shut down business in the capital. The rallies have nevertheless remained festive, with families picnicking and men and women dancing to drums and national songs.
Police estimate the crowds in both sit-ins have gradually dwindled since they arrived in the capital late Friday. Both rallies began as caravans of vehicles setting out from the eastern city of Lahore.
According to police, there are currently around 25,000 to 30,000 people in both demonstrations. The two rallies are centered along parallel streets, each with its own stage for speakers, but the crowds overlap and mingle at various times, especially when the leaders or key figures address the gatherings.
Business owners say many of their suppliers are not able to reach their shops. Shaukat Ali, who owns a meat shop, said Sunday that his supplier hasn't been able to come so all he had was a crate of chickens to sell.
Bicycle store owner Adeel Zafar said his shop has been closed for a week because of the protests.
"Why we are being punished?" he said.
Protesters say they have little choice but to rely on local residents for help. Saeed Ahmed came from the city of Faisalabad, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) away, to support Qadri. Ahmed said they were ready to suffer what may come in support of Qadri's revolution but complained that local residents weren't too cooperative.
"At least let us use the restroom and share a little food with us," he said. "This is what our religion teaches us."