ISLAMABAD — Pakistani officials struck a deal with a fiery Muslim cleric on Thursday to end four days of antigovernment protests by thousands of his supporters that largely paralyzed the capital and put intense pressure on the government.
The demonstration came at a time when the government is facing challenges on several fronts, including from the country’s top court. The Supreme Court ordered the arrest of the prime minister earlier in the week in a corruption case, but the government’s anticorruption chief refused to act on Thursday, citing a lack of evidence.
Tahir-ul-Qadri, the 61-year-old cleric who led the protests in Islamabad, galvanized many Pakistanis with his message alleging that the nation’s politicians are corrupt thieves who care more about lining their pockets than dealing with the country’s pressing problems, such as electricity shortages, high unemployment, and deadly attacks by Islamist militants. He demanded electoral reform to prevent corrupt politicians from standing for elections.
But his demand that the government be dissolved and replaced by a military-backed caretaker administration raised concerns that he was being used by the nation’s powerful army to try to delay parliamentary elections this spring. Qadri has denied any connection to the army, which has a history of toppling civilian governments in military coups and has done little to hide its disdain for the country’s politicians.
Qadri returned late last year from Canada and became a significant political force almost overnight, leveraging support from a large cadre of religious followers in Pakistan and abroad. Tens of thousands of people responded to his call for a protest in Islamabad and camped out in the main avenue running across the city, huddling beneath blankets at night.
But Qadri was left politically isolated Wednesday when a large group of opposition parties collectively announced they would not support the protest and opposed any movement that threatened democracy.
Their response and suggestions by the country’s interior minister that the government would use force to disperse the protesters might have factored into the cleric’s decision to make a deal, which appeared to fall short of his demands.
The government agreed to meet with Qadri after he announced that Thursday would be the last day of the protest while warning that he would let the protesters decide how to respond if the government failed to meet his demands.
The agreement was reached after hours of negotiation inside a bulletproof container the religious leader was using at the demonstration site. The bizarre scene was broadcast on TV as cameras filmed the group’s meeting through the container’s window. Thousands of protesters danced and cheered when Qadri said that he and the government had hammered out a deal and they could now end their protest.
‘‘God has granted you victory, and this is a day of victory for Pakistan,’’ he told the crowd.
The government agreed to dissolve the National Assembly before its term ends on March 16, leaving time to make sure politicians are eligible to stand for elections under the constitution, according to a copy of the agreement. The government also agreed that the caretaker administration, which normally precedes elections, would be chosen in consultation with Qadri’s party, but there was no mention of a role for the military or the judiciary as the cleric demanded.
The cleric also demanded the dissolution of the body that oversees elections in Pakistan, claiming it was biased because it was appointed by political leaders. Leaders agreed to discuss the composition of the Election Commission.