Protest in Pakistan: The scene bears watching by the United States

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Violent protests in Pakistan led by a former sports star and a senior Muslim cleric are putting democratic, civilian rule in that country at growing risk. The demonstrations have been concentrated in the capital, Islamabad, and may have been condoned by the military.

Orderly rule in Pakistan has been a dicey business since independence in 1947. Last year’s election brought back to power previous Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He has been a controversial leader and his reputation has not been free of charges of corruption. Nonetheless, the balloting this time seemed to be relatively straight. He won by a substantial 16 percent margin, and his election was unprecedented since it constituted Pakistan’s replacement of one civilian government with another.

Former cricket star Imran Khan lost the election and found a Muslim religious leader, Tahir ul-Qadri, to join his supporters in carrying out a campaign of demonstrations that have involved tens of thousands and resulted in several deaths and 400 injured over the weekend.

Pakistan’s powerful military, which ousted Mr. Sharif as prime minister in 1999, currently has two bones to pick with him. The first is that he has not freed from charges former military chief Pervez Musharraf. He has also showed signs of being interested in easing tensions with India, Pakistan’s major rival. Pakistan’s military retains its influence and access to major funding in part by the maintenance of hostilities with India.

The United States has to be interested in what happens in Pakistan. There is the continuing war and U.S. involvement in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan’s ambiguous role in it. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, as does India, and Pakistan’s 180 million, largely Sunni Muslim population, makes it a significant player in the region and in the world. An unstable government there has to be automatically of concern to Washington.

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