Big Test For Imran Khan As Tehreek-i-Labbaik Demands The Expulsion Of French Ambassador To Pakistan

Many major cities in Pakistan are witnessing large-scale protests against the arrest of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) chief Saad Hussain Rizvi in Lahore as a “pre-emptive measure” ahead of the party’s April 20 deadline to the government.

The party had set a deadline for the government last year in October when a teacher in France who had shown blasphemous sketches of Prophet Muhammad in class was decapitated, while the perpetrator was killed by French police as they tried to arrest him.

Subsequently, the caricatures were displayed in protests across France, with one caricature featured on the facade of a building in one city. France upheld the freedom of speech, with President Emmanuel Macron criticizing Islamists in the country, which provoked angry reactions from the Muslim world.

Imran Khan along with other leaders from the Muslim country condemned the hardline stance of Macron and angry protests ensued.

TLP leader Saad Hussain Rizvi (Photo: Twitter)

The TLP has been demanding the severing of all ties with France and boycott of the French products in the country. The party also demanded the expulsion of the French Ambassador from the country, which the government had agreed to discuss within three months in November last year. The government under pressure had also agreed not to appoint its ambassador to France.

The matter was to be taken up by the government in the parliament before the deadline of 20th April 2021. In a surprise development, the government arrested the leader of the TLP as the deadline approached, provoking angry reactions from the party supporters. The party now believes the government has reneged on its promise.

Police clashed with protesters in Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, and many other smaller cities in the country. The police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the overwhelming protests in the country, which still continue.

The latest reports indicate the government was contemplating banning the right-wing party after the situation went out of control. However, it’s unclear whether the cabinet will clear such a proposal.

Pakistan’s diplomatic relations with France to suffer?

The religious party TLP Pakistan commands massive support in its demand of getting the French ambassador deported from the country. The development risks a serious diplomatic rift between Pakistan and France at many levels. The step could jeopardize Pakistan’s global reputation and the country’s relations with many western countries.

The growing closeness between France and India has also contributed to the worsening relations of the European country with Pakistan, which had historically been friendly and cordial.

The expulsion of the French ambassador by the Imran government under the pressure of the religious parties will have severe consequences, which will not only badly affect the bilateral relations but extend to important international forums, including the Security Council and the European Union, of which France is a permanent member.

Quoting Pakistan’s former ambassador to France Ghalib Iqbal, BBC, said, “the deportation of the French ambassador will provoke a strong reaction not only from France but also from other Western countries because any country that relents under pressure from a group and accepts their demands cannot have an independent foreign and domestic policy.

More importantly, the diplomatic rift could impact the country’s chances at clearing the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), of which France is an important member. The country has been reeling under acute economic stress and making serious efforts to remove itself from the FATF grey list. France was also one of the countries opposing the removal of Pakistan from the grey list last February.

With Pakistan exporting much of its products to the European countries, including France, experts are warning against taking any step that could worsen the relations between the two countries. The former diplomats in Pakistan are urging the government to resolve the standoff with peaceful negotiations and public consultations, and not take any step that harms the interests of the country.

“You have to see if this decision is good for your country or not. If it is good for your country then you should take it regardless of the consequences,” ambassador Ghalib added.

“You can’t deport the French ambassador and then tell the world we were compelled. If you think this decision is right for you, take it to the parliament of Pakistan and act accordingly.”

It will be difficult for the country’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to take a decision on this issue. It’s like being caught between a rock and a hard place. He risks losing the support of conservative sections by declining the TLP demand, and if in case he accepts it, he will be criticized for pandering to the religious factions in the country while side-lining the country’s interests.

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