LAHORE - A flamboyant Pakistani cleric vowing to bring down the country's government has denied widespread speculation he is backed by the powerful military.
Tahir ul-Qadri flew into Pakistan this week from his home in Canada, calling for revolution following months of tension between the weak civilian government and the military.
The military launched an offensive this month against Taliban insurgents after lengthy government-backed peace talks failed and the Taliban attacked the country's busiest airport.
Qadri's arrival prompted fevered speculation in a coup-prone country where conspiracy theories are a national pastime. Many insinuated he had military backing, which the cleric-turned-political activist emphatically denies. "I will fight against the Pakistan army if it tries to take over," Qadri told Reuters in an interview, but stopped short of giving details of how he would do this.
"I am against military rule. My destination is true democracy," he added, speaking in the sitting-room of his heavily guarded home on Thursday night, surrounded by aides and pictures of Muslim holy sites.
His supporters clashed with riot police this week outside the capital's main airport, causing his plane to be diverted. Qadri refused to leave his business class seat for several hours after landing.
Qadri said he feared for his safety because nine people were killed in a standoff between his supporters and police the week before. The cleric has a large network of religious schools, from which he draws many of his supporters.
On Thursday, he renewed his calls for a peaceful revolution, but was coy about his strategies, timing and ultimate goals. "I will achieve my goal just through the struggle of the masses," he said. "They will come out on the roads and will force the rulers to resign." Qadri wants the elected government to resign over accusations of electoral fraud, but is unclear exactly how its replacement would be chosen.
"I want neither mid-term nor long-term elections," he said."I don't want anything which is not legitimate. My concerns are true democracy, fair elections and human rights." Qadri's long speeches calling for political reform - punctuated by detailed constitutional references - may strike less of a chord among Pakistanis than his outrage over daily power cuts, high unemployment and inflation.
Power shortages have eviscerated Pakistani manufacturing industries, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs. The hardships helped mobilize tens of thousands of people to descend on the capital when Qadri called a demonstration last year.
He is now working to build alliances with other figures in the opposition, including popular cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who has offered Qadri tentative encouragement.
It's yet more pressure on the embattled government of Nawaz Sharif, already bruised by confrontations with the military.
Sharif knows the power of protests: he was previously overthrown in a coup in 1999, but saw his nemesis, the former army chief, forced to resign by mass street protests in 2008.
Qadri, whose website says he has written more than 1,000 books and is a man of "manifold and staggering achievements,"hopes for a repeat of that episode. "Corrupt rulers are making money instead of resolving people's problems," he says.
Pakistan's parliament, stuffed with wealthy lawmakers who pay neither taxes nor utility bills, is one of Qadri's favourite targets.
In response, the country's Federal Investigation Agency announced this week that it would scrutanize Qadri's affairs.
Qadri has sworn not to be deterred. "I want rule of law, equality between poor and rich, men and women and Muslims and non-Muslims," he said firmly. "I will continue my struggle until the goals are achieved."