B.K. Bangash / AP
Supporters of cleric Muhammad Tahirul Qadri wait for their leader in Islamabad, Pakistan on Monday. Authorities put up barricades and sent riot police into the streets ahead of his arrival.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Thousands of protesters marched on Pakistan's capital Monday, promising to establish a local version of Cairo's Tahrir Square in support of a cleric who is demanding a crackdown on corruption and other government reforms.
About 10,000 more assembled to greet the arrival of Muhammad Tahirul Qadri, who has been described by one Western diplomat as a "Pakistani cross between [President Barack] Obama and [the late Ayatollah] Khomeini [who returned from exile to lead the Iranian revolution and who later served as the country's supreme leader]."
His supporters hope to start a campaign of civil disobedience echoing the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring protests of 2011, which ended with dictator Hosni Mubarak being driven from power.
Police erected barriers and blocked off key routes to government offices and embassies ahead of Qadri's arrival. He left Lahore Sunday on a 400-mile "Long March for Saving the State."
The Pakistani-Canadian sufi cleric's his much-hyped, much-debated and much-criticized march reached the outskirts of Islamabad late Monday.
Qadri’s most important — and controversial — demand is for the indefinite postponement of forthcoming national elections until government corruption and inefficiency can be tackled.
Qadri, 61, believes Pakistan needs administrative transparency along with electoral and other reforms — a diagnosis which has found many supporters.
He wants to delay elections and wants the judges and the generals to be consulted when it comes to creating an interim government.
In a country that has fought hard to complete a major democratic milestone - an elected government will complete its first, full term by mid-March — Qadri’s "Save Pakistan, Not Democracy" ethos is creating a rift between Pakistan’s pragmatists and idealists.
Reuters noted that Qadri had achieved fame since returning to Pakistan from Canada last month:
Qadri says he wants the judiciary to bar corrupt politicians from running for office and that the army could play a role in the formation of a caretaker government to manage the run-up to elections this spring.
Qadri's call has divided Pakistanis. Some see him as a champion of reform ... Others see Qadri as a possible stooge of the military, which has a history of coups and interfering in elections.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Qadri denied any connection to the military and said his aim is to destroy the current political system in which he contends a few powerful families control the political process.
"People were waiting for someone to raise a voice for true democracy," he told The AP. "They (the current government) have almost finished their tenure of five years. They have delivered nothing to the people of Pakistan except terrorism, extremism, worsening law and order situation, hunger, poverty, lack of education, lack of health facilities, and unemployment."
The AP added:
A one-time member of parliament, Qadri quit in 2004 over what he says was disgust with the ruling system and moved to Canada in 2006. Since then he spent most of his time in Canada with occasional trips to Pakistan or other countries to promote his agenda.
He earned praise in the West when he came out with a 600-page fatwa in 2010 condemning terrorism, using the same language in the Quran and Islam that militants often use to justify their actions. He's spoken at such institutions as Georgetown University and the United States Institute for Peace, and held rallies in Britain against extremism.
"No elections after this disastrous government goes home," said supporter Naheed Begum, 50, who was camped out in almost freezing temperatures on Jinnah Avenue. "We will not let one gang of thieves take over from another gang of thieves."
Begum traveled from the northern Pakistani town of Mardan with blankets and dry food rations to attend the rally.
"I’m here with my daughters and my grandchildren. We love to vote, but it it important to change things before we vote."
But Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister, dismissed Qadri's demands. "This government came through an elected process. And so will the next one. Qadri should be warned. He can come, he can camp out, but if he messes around, if he gets violent, I will mess around back, and doubly."
Muhammed Muheisen / AP
Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.
Malik also disputed Qadri’s claims of support. "No one is with Qadri,” he said. “He had promised four million will turn up, and I can’t even count a few thousand [here]."
Shumaisa Rehman, an anchor on one of Pakistan’s private news channels who was reporting on the protests, told NBC News: "It’s got little to do with the numbers. Forget four million. Bring in 20,000 to 30,000 people into a sleepy little capital, and you’ve got a political crisis, whether you like it or not."
Officials warned that intelligence suggested the Taliban may attempt to attack the crowds. However, volunteers from Qadri's own organization, Minhaj ul Quran International, checked participants for weapons.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.