By Mick Krever, CNN
With the military on the streets of Islamabad trying to restore order amid protests calling for the resignation of Pakistan’s prime minister, that country’s defense minister says that neither the protesters nor the military poses a threat.
“There is absolutely no threat,” Khawaja Asif told CNN’s Michael Holmes, in for Christiane Amanpour, on Monday. “The government was never under threat. It's just a perception. We still enjoy overwhelming majority in the parliament.”
“These protesters and their leaders, they claim that they have the support of the Pakistan Army or the intelligence agencies, which is totally incorrect.”
“It is purely a political dispute.”
Two separate groups of protesters are camped out at Pakistan’s parliament, calling on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign. He was elected just last year, and took office in the country’s first-ever democratic transition of power.
The protests turned deadly this weekend, when people tried to storm Sharif’s house. At least three people have died and 450 have been injured.
Some protesters are standing behind cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan, who accuses Sharif of fraud during last year’s election, which Khan lost by a landslide. (International observers largely dispute that account.) Others stand behind the cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, was says Sharif is corrupt.
Asif agreed that the protests are serious, but said they are no different from the movements in any “established democracies” around the world.
“Just because ten or 20 or 25 or 30 thousand people are protesting on the streets of Islamabad, the prime minister should resign – that is absurd, and nothing else,” Asif said.
Most of the protesters’ “problems are reasonable,” he said, and can be worked out by negotiation.
“But if they are asking for the resignation of the prime minister, that's unreasonable. We still enjoy the majority in the parliament and the prime minister will not resign.”
Looming over all of this is the military, which has intervened in Pakistani politics many times in the past. Sharif himself was deposed in a military coup in 1999.
“We have a checkered history. We have had four coups in 67 years, military coups.”
“That fear is always lurking on the minds of Pakistani nation, or Pakistani people. But having said that, last eight years since 2008, the military has stayed away from politics. They have been apolitical.”
The Pakistani military has released a statement in which it “categorically rejected” claims that it stood behind the protests, saying it is “an apolitical institution and has expressed its unequivocal support for democracy.”
The current government, Asif said, has a “perfect relationship” with the army.
“We hope to continue this relationship in the future also. So there is no imminent danger. And it's more of a perception. The reality is completely different from that.”