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International relations

Pakistan Islamists press for French ambassador's expulsion

Parliamentary resolution pushed by militant TLP party likely to hit economy

Supporters of the Islamist Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan political party demonstrate in Lahore on April 21.   © Reuters

KARACHI -- Unruly protests by the militant Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, or TLP, may lead to the French ambassador's expulsion from Pakistan if a parliamentary resolution demanded by the militants is passed. Such a move could threaten foreign investment and economic recovery in the South Asian nation.

A session of the National Assembly was called Tuesday to vote on the expulsion of the French ambassador. The session was postponed until Friday, after the opposition demanded time to study the resolution and add to it.

The problem started in September last year, when French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published caricatures of Muhamad that many Muslims consider blasphemous. French President Emmanuel Macron supported Charlie Hebdo in the name of freedom of expression, while the caricatures drew sharp criticism in the Islamic world.

The TLP responded in November with a huge protest, taking over the Faizabad Interchange, a central junction in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The militants ended their demonstration after the government agreed to present a resolution to parliament by April calling for the French ambassador to be expelled.

To pressure the government to make good on its promise, the TLP began another a series of demonstrations on April 12, blocking major roads in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, bringing life to a standstill in Pakistan's big cities. The government retaliated by banning the TLP, declaring it a terrorist organization and arresting its leader, Saad Rizvi.

Undeterred, the militants continued their protests. A TLP mob abducted a dozen security officials from a post in Lahore on April 18. This time the government capitulated and agreed to release the leader of the group. The government also announced it would present a resolution in the National Assembly on the French ambassador's expulsion.

France has advised its citizens to leave Pakistan temporarily in the wake of the violent TLP protests.

A supporter of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan hurls stones towards police during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Lahore on April 13.   © Reuters

Experts believe that if Pakistan's parliament passes the resolution and expels the ambassador, Pakistan's relations with the European Union will be badly damaged.

One possible European sanction would be to strip Pakistan of its eligibility under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences, which grants trade preferences to Pakistani exports to the EU. France is also the headquarters of the Financial Action Taskforce, a global money laundering watchdog that has placed Pakistan on the "gray" list. Sending the French ambassador home could harm Pakistan's effort to be removed from the list.

Krzysztof Iwanek, head of the Asia Research Center at Warsaw's War Studies University, told Nikkei Asia that normally, the economic benefits of accessing the Pakistani market appear to outweigh the political costs of a diplomatic crisis. However, he says that it "does not mean there [will] be no reaction. France has asked its citizens to leave Pakistan for now and has canceled the visas of many Pakistani nationals."

Iwanek added that such moves may temporarily and indirectly slow French business discussions with Pakistan. He said that if the issue escalates beyond the expulsion, Paris' reaction may affect the economic domain as well.

Pakistan's economy is struggling, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting economic growth of 1.5% in 2021. Foreign direct investment is thought to be key to reviving the economy. But expelling the ambassador of a major European country in response to protests by Islamist militants will paint an Pakistan as anti-Western. Analysts believe this will deter foreign investment in the South Asian country.

Arif Rafiq, President of Vizier Consulting a political risk advisory, told Nikkei that the expulsion of the French ambassador would add another layer of risk to potential foreign investment in Pakistan: namely, that Western brands and nationals could be caught up in Pakistan's "blasphemy industrial complex," referring to the practice of using the allegations of blasphemy to target political opponents.

"If Islamabad is compelled by local actors to make further curbs on speech and religious liberty, its GSP-plus status with the European Union could become challenged. Losing GSP-plus privileges would severely dent the volume of Pakistan's exports to the EU, which makes up a major chunk of its overall exports," he said.

If the TLP succeeds in its drive to remove the French ambassador, Pakistan's credibility will suffer, leading to doubts about its ability to enforce its writ when it comes to Islamists. According to experts, it may also affect Chinese interests in Pakistan if militants try to pressure China over the alleged persecution of Muslim Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang Province.

Others, including Rafiq, believe that so far, Pakistani Islamists have been selective in their outrage. "They generally focus on Western countries and, for various reasons, are muted when it comes to China."

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