The Pakistani government has agreed to the demands of anti-blasphemy protesters on Monday, 27 November, ending a weeks-long standoff as the country's law minister decided to step down. Zahid Hamid's resignation comes a day after it was feared that the protests could intensify as the government decided to briefly deploy army personnel in the capital Islamabad to disperse the protesters.
Since early November, anti-blasphemy protesters, numbering roughly 2,000, have been camping on a key highway known as Faizabad Interchange in Islamabad demanding Hamid's removal. The demonstrations were initially triggered by tweaking of the wording of the electoral oath for lawmakers – a change which the protesters say was aimed at appeasing religious minorities. A fortnight full negotiations, a swift reversal by the government and intervention by courts did not satisfy the protesters leading to massive rallies.
At least six people were killed and hundreds were left injured during weekend clashes between riot police and demonstrators, forcing the government to hasten negotiations with Tahreek-e-Labaik group, a hardline Islamist group which is leading the rallies. The government's decision to give in to the demands of a hardline group will be seen as an embarrassment particularly when the country is set to face elections in 2018.
Besides Hamid's departure, which was the main demand of the Islamist protesters, the government has also agreed to release all the detained protesters while an inquiry will be conducted into the botched clearance operation. An interior ministry statement credited the powerful Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and his team for their "special efforts" in the negotiation process.
Soon after the government's announcement, Tahreek-e-Labaik said the group was calling off the demonstrations which had virtually paralysed Islamabad for weeks.
While Hamid is expected to issue a detailed statement later, he is thought to have stepped down in his personal capacity and also "to take the country out of a crisis-like situation", the state-run news channel PTV reported. "In order to restore peace, I have made up my mind to step down," he was quoted as saying.