Pakistan’s parliament will debate Tuesday whether the country should expel the French ambassador as the government bids to appease a radical party that has threatened more violent protests unless the envoy is kicked out.
The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has waged an anti-France campaign for months since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of a satirical magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed — an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.
Interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the government had agreed to hold a vote on the expulsion of the French ambassador, and the TLP in turn had pledged to “call off its protest sit-ins from the entire country”.
Leaders from the TLP, however, told AFP their protests are set to continue.
The National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, announced an emergency session would be held on Tuesday afternoon, where a resolution would be tabled for debate.
It is not clear when the vote will be held.
Resolutions relating to sensitive Islamic issues are often passed unanimously in Pakistan’s parliament, but are non-binding, with many previous votes not enacted by the government.
The TLP said it would press ahead with its planned march on Islamabad on Tuesday at midnight unless the French ambassador has been expelled.
They told AFP they expected their leader — whose detention last week sparked the protests — to be released on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday pleaded with the radical group to end its violent campaign to oust the ambassador, saying the unrest was harming the nation.
“It doesn’t make any difference to France,” he said in a national address broadcast on television.
“If we keep protesting our whole lives we would only be damaging our own country and it will not impact (the West).”
Protests erupted following the arrest of the TLP’s leader last week after he called for a march on the capital to demand the French envoy’s expulsion.
Several police officers have since been killed in clashes with demonstrators, while 11 others were held hostage for several hours at a TLP mosque on Sunday, Lahore police said.
The TLP says several of its supporters also died in skirmishes.
The French embassy last week recommended all its citizens leave the country, and on Monday a source at the foreign ministry said Paris was recalling all non-essential staff and their families.
The Pakistan government banned the TLP last Wednesday — effectively labelling the group a terror organisation — and police arrested thousands of protesters during clashes, but Rashid said no action would be taken against them.
“Cases registered — including those under the fourth schedule — will also be withdrawn,” he said, referring to charges that fall under anti-terror laws.
Few issues are as galvanising in Pakistan as blasphemy, and even the slightest suggestion of an insult to Islam can supercharge protests, incite lynchings, and unite the country’s warring political parties.
Analysts say Khan’s policy of appeasement is risky.
“I think the prime minister has realised that appeasing the radical forces isn’t an easy task because when you try to please them they demand more and more,” security analyst Amir Rana told AFP.
“So far he has failed to maintain the balance.”
“There is no doubt there is a bind,” said political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi.