The army gets itchy fingers whenever there is political turmoil in Pakistan. Will the current impasse lead to another martial law?
The drama of Pakistani politics has reached a fever pitch as the standoff between Imran Khan, chief of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif continues. Since August 2014, Khan has teamed with a populist cleric, Tahirul Qadri, who also happens to be a Canadian citizen, in order to organize massive demonstrations against Sharif and bring his administration to a grinding halt. When a photo emerged of Barack Obama listening to one of Khan’s speeches within the confines of Air Force One, it became clear that the cricket star-turned-politician has seized the world stage.
But to what end? Do the protests signal a new future of participatory politics for Pakistanis or does it signal a return to the imposition of authoritarian rule that will compromise the will of the people? Such questions throw a troubling inflection onto the adrenaline-charged photographs of thousands of Pakistanis mobilized and in the streets, seeking a future in which they finally have self-respect and dignity.
Since August, Khan and Qadri have combined forces to call for a massive civilian revolt against Sharif’s 16-month government, which they accuse of being ushered into power through fraudulent elections. On September 21, the Election Commission of Pakistan uploaded its report into the May 2013 elections on its website where it admitted that irregularities had occurred in several constituencies. The following day, the storage house where the Election Commission’s records are kept, was mysteriously destroyed by fire. One wonders who was behind it?
The protest movements led by Imran Khan and Qadri demand that Sharif must immediately relinquish power and step down; Sharif has categorically refused. The most charged encounter occurred on August 30, 2014, when Khan’s and Qadri’s speeches aroused a massive demonstration that attacked the prime minister’s residence in Islamabad. In the showdown, the police were called in and fended off the angry masses with tear gas and rubber bullets, all paraphernalia acquired through their role as clients of the US War on Terror. Several people died, which Khan and Qadri used to further rake the Sharif government over coals.
Protests in the streets appeared to be echoed in various branches of government. The Sharif brothers, Nawaz and his younger brother Shahbaz, who currently serves as the powerful chief minister of Punjab, are known for their corruption. They are also clients of the Saudi monarchy, where Nawaz sought refuge after being deposed by General Pervez Musharraf in October 1999. After the Sharif government came to power in 2013, Saudi Arabia quietly bought off the Sharif brothers and persuaded them to abandon the Iran-Pakistan peace pipeline that was seen as vital to both countries’ economic futures, and that had been approved by Sharif’s predecessor, President Asif Ali Zardari. In March 2014, Pakistan’s parliament and bureaucratic class debated a shady $1.5 billion “donation” from the Saudi King to Pakistan. Soon after this “donation,” Sharif’s administration formally announced that it was scrapping the pipeline project and sinking the prospect of gas sufficiency for energy-starved Pakistan.
Public unrest has boiled over with the Sharif clan, which seems to want to transform Pakistan into a Saudi-style fiefdom. There is a complex array of motivations behind the explosion of public anger against the brothers: discontent with the Sharifs combined with a volatile economic situation and the continued barrage on the country’s soil and collective psyche via US drone attacks. The alternative should also be considered. While Khan has transformed from a marginal political figure into a bona fide political player over the past years, his tactics have also raised eyebrows. Khan has been widely criticized for his turn from maverick leader of an independent political movement to compromiser-mediator with established (and often corrupt) politicians in order to gain traction in the Pakistani political system.
While ideological fidelity might be a difficult point for Khan to answer to, it is an undeniable truth that this traction has also allowed him to use different branches of the government against the Sharif administration. On September 19, a Pakistani court initiated proceeding against 61 politicians, including the Sharif brothers, charging them with illegal transfer of public assets to foreign countries.
The partnership between Khan, Pakistan’s superstar cricketer-turned-politician, and Tahirul Qadri, the Canada-based mawlana known for his educational TV programs and fiery sermons, seems an unlikely one at first. While their teamwork has the kinetic power to organize massive demonstrations in the streets, they individually can’t quite shake off their pasts. Khan has increasingly moved toward a conservative, populist rhetoric and public championing of Islam; for instance, he has come down hard against Salman Rushdie and other public faces for the international smear campaign against Islam. However, he can’t entirely shake off his background, that of the liberal, bureaucratic elite from which he hails.
In his May 13 article, Pakistani author Mohammad Hanif encapsulated the double bind that Khan’s electoral strategy placed him in leading up to the 2013 national elections that he lost to Nawaz Sharif. “For a few months he made politics hip in Pakistan. Partly, he was relying on votes from Pakistan's posh locales. He probably forgot that there was a slight problem there: not enough posh locales in Pakistan. There were kids who flew in from Chicago, from Birmingham to vote for him. Again, there are not enough Pakistani kids living and studying in Chicago and Birmingham. He appealed to the educated middle classes but Pakistan’s main problem is that there aren’t enough educated urban middle-class citizens in the country. And the masses, it appears, were not really clamouring for a revolution but for electricity.”
For Qadri’s part, he has been dogged throughout his career for being too close for comfort with the political and military elite of Pakistan. Qadri initially came to prominence as a client of the Sharif clan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s father, Mian Mohammad Sharif first appointed Qadri as the imam of the masjid tied with the Sharif family’s iron and steel foundries. Qadri then used the Sharifs’ patronage to set up national school systems that netted him a fortune; and later entered politics by forming his own political party (in 1989). Qadri’s political ambitions produced a rift between him and his old patrons; his party contested the 1990 elections but did not win a single seat. After Musharraf’s 1999 coup, Qadri hitched his bandwagon to the Pakistan Army, where it has remained ever since.
After Qadri and Imran Khan teamed up in August 2014, many independent observers alleged that the alliance may have been brokered by the powerful army that has been content to remain behind the scenes after the election of Bhutto-Zardari affiliated Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to power in 2008. Is Imran Khan’s willingness to work with Qadri a sign that he is now seeking the army’s blessing as a precursor to assuming power? There is certainly no love loss between the Sharifs and the army, a fact encapsulated by Nawaz Sharif’s move to seek revenge, soon after returning to power in 2013, by prosecuting General Musharraf for “treason.” But to what extent will a new government headed by Imran Khan maintain its civilian independence and fulfill its promises to change the system and deliver justice if he is beholden to the army?
In recent news, the army is reportedly mediating the “stand-off” between the Sharif administration and the Khan-Qadri team in order to keep peace. Many observers have noticed that this mediation could possibly signal the army’s intention to move back into the public eye and assert control over the political process once more. Khan and Qadri’s demagoguery has unleashed truly spectacular sights of mobilized public will in the streets of Pakistan, demanding rights and basic human dignity. What direction this public will is channeled into is up for debate.