06 Jun

On the 9th of April 2022, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted in a historic and controversial vote of no confidence. This resulted in the coalition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) ousting Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and forming a government – a government that Imran Khan and his followers refer to as an “imported government” after Imran Khan referred to his ousting as a “foreign conspiracy” organised with the help of and for the United States.

On the 30th of April, ex-Prime Minister of Pakistan and Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf announced that his party would organise an anti-government “march” towards Islamabad, starting in the last week of May, which became scheduled for the 25th of May. The announcement of the anti-government march infused a sense of political zeal in Imran Khan’s ardent supporters, buoyed by his populist rhetoric. Many others felt a very real sense of dread, as they saw Pakistan’s political, economic and security situation weaken tremendously both during Khan’s tenure and as a result of his narrative and schemes relating to the perceived nature of his ouster.

Much of the dread and zeal related to Khan’s protest came directly as a result of the rhetoric Imran Khan and his aides had used. Among other things, in the build-up to the planned protest, Imran Khan and his aides referred to their plans as “khooni march”  (bloody march).  The kind of narrative Imran Khan and his associates chose to push centred around the insinuation of violence, bloodshed, revolution and other threats.

On the 24th of May, Imran Khan’s planned protest was banned by Pakistan’s government, with Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, who said during a media briefing “No one would be allowed to siege the capital and dictate his demands,” adding that PTI’s demands were “evil”. The ban on PTI’s protest came after a policeman was shot dead during a government crackdown against PTI’s political leaders.

Pakistani authorities increased security in Islamabad through police and paramilitary presence and patrols, as well as implementing blockades. As the protest found Islamabad, there were exchanges of hostility between the deployed forces and Imran Khan’s supporters. Tear gas was used to disperse the crowds that had indulged in vandalism.

Despite mobilizing huge crowds into vandalism and confrontation with the authorities, Imran Khan decided to postpone his ill-prepared protest, saying “we will be better prepared next time,” but skirted around the idea of proposing a date.

Imran Khan said his party had sought protection from the Supreme Court of Pakistan, but that no deal between his own party, the government and the establishment had been agreed upon, adding “the only reason I decided to end the long march was to avoid bloodshed and avoid creating a gulf between the establishment and the public” – once again, bringing into the spotlight a rift between not only political parties but also with Pakistan’s powerful military without naming them explicitly. However,  senior PTI leader and close aide of Imran Khan Shireen Mazari said “now everyone knows the neutrals were not actually neutral” – with the “neutrals” an insult against the military over perceived political interference against PTI.

Background

While skyrocketing inflation and a weakening Rupee continue to bite Pakistan, it is important to understand that the vast majority of the damage was done during Imran Khan and PTI’s three and a half year tenure – something that Imran Khan and his supporters want to deflect the blame off onto the interim government led by Shehbaz Sharif. Further political instigation on Imran Khan’s part is worsening Pakistan’s economic insecurity.

In addition to referring to Shehbaz Sharif’s government as “imported”, Imran Khan and his associated ministers and social media teams have implicated Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa in the political mess, by insinuating the general had asked him to resign.

The Pakistan Army chief, who Imran Khan has previously referred to as the “most neutral and pro-democratic army chief”, seems more interested in the stability of the country than political engineering. He appears willing to repair relations with countries important to Pakistan’s economy and Imran Khan’s government had strained relations. Recent military missions have been to the United Kingdom, the United States, United Arab Emirates, and telephonic conversations with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince.

It is notable that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Chief’s visit to London and Washington happened just before Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto’s own visit. There seems to be an understanding regarding repairing relations with important economic and security partners between Pakistan Army and the new government, but the results of this, given the nature of Pakistan’s potentially temporary and fragile government remain to be seen.

The moments before Imran Khan’s march

On the 21st of May, senior PTI leader and ex-human rights minister Shireen Mazari was arrested by police. Misleading or incorrect statements by Shireen Mazari’s daughter and famous lawyer, Imaan Zainab Mazari-Hazir created a situation of panic for the safety of Shireen Mazari, though these claims were proven to be baseless.

Imaan Mazari says her mother was beaten by male officers before being taken, however, it turned out that it was female officers that arrested Shireen Mazari and there is no evidence of any physical abuse – in fact, there is only evidence of Shireen Mazari verbally abusing professional female officers.

Imaan Mazari went as far as threatening Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staf General Bajwa that he is on Imaan’s “target list” and blamed him for her mother’s arrest by police.

Islamabad High Court ordered the police authorities to present former human rights minister Shireen Mazari and she was released just hours after detention.

Commentators questioned the nature of Imaan Mazari’s misleading demonstration about her mother’s capture and the threatening behaviour aiming to implicate Pakistan’s army chief in the mess without any proof. Some commentators suggested that this was part of a stunt aimed to rally support for PTI and damage the image of Pakistan’s most powerful institution and the government.

On the 23rd of May, Pakistani police under the authority of the government launched a crackdown against PTI, raiding dozens of locations and addressing many ministers and associates of Imran Khan’s party. Police had been on patrol near the houses of all senior party leaders, including the former Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed and former Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry.

Fascism, police brutality and the right to peaceful protests

Despite PTI and Imran Khan having popularity across diverse demographics, including among the youth and secularists, much of the rhetoric surrounding Imran Khan’s protest and ouster revolves much more around Islamism and threat of force than Pakistanis should be comfortable with, given Pakistan is a country where spontaneous religious and politically motivated violence isn’t uncommon.

In the build-up to the 25th of May protests, Imran Khan and PTI worked hard to promote an image of their planned march as merely “peaceful protests”, but some of the narratives surrounding the march have actually exacerbated tensions and increased the chance of violence and long term political instability and division in Pakistan. As the days rolled on towards the 25th, a lot of the rhetoric changed from peaceful, to alarming – much of this worrying narrative came from Khan himself, his associated ministers and was also pushed by PTI social media wings and pro-PTI accounts.

On the 24th of May – the night before Imran Khan’s planned march – police raided the homes of several PTI ministers in what appeared to be a government crackdown against the party. Imran Khan condemned the raids as “fascism”, “police brutality” and in violation of the constitution. The narrative coming from PTI and their supporters was that their ‘peaceful’ protests had been unlawfully and unfairly prevented.

While Pakistan’s new government must ensure PTI’s right to peaceful protests, it becomes much more difficult if the protests have become laced with threatening or insightful statements from party leaders, social media teams and pro-PTI personalities. During Imran Khan’s own tenure, his government were responsible for clamping down on political parties to the point of outlawing them and arresting their leaders after they staged protests of their own.

Much of Khan’s foreign policy revolved around the politicisation of blasphemy, with domestic audiences in mind. When a French cartoonist drew supposedly blasphemous cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, anti-blasphemy took centre stage in Khan’s rhetoric, leading to a breakdown of relations with France and discontent in Pakistan. The blasphemous cartoon fiasco fuelled the fires of the Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), whose own religious zeal and political narratives are centred around the implementation of draconian blasphemy laws.

In October 2021, TLP announced their own march towards Islamabad in order to force Khan’s government to deport the French ambassador over cartoons drawn in France – these demonstrations appeared to be more like riots than peaceful protests. However, another critical component of their protests was to force the release of their leader Saad Rizvi, who along with a ban on TLP, was imprisoned under Terrorism Act 1997 along with the after staging protests against Imran Khan’s government.

It is believed that then Pakistan PM Imran Khan had authorised the use of force against TLP supporters, but  Pakistan’s powerful army chief personally intervened in order to prevent unnecessary violence and the worsening of political instability.

The concerns of PTI regarding the right to peaceful protests, as well as the previous arrest of leaders and outlawing of other parties for “terrorism” and political violence under Khan’s administration, seem hypocritical. especially given Imran Khan’s own party and supporters have now indulged in politically motivated disturbances and vandalism of their own – that too while being spirited by PTI’s religious and threatful rhetoric.

PTI’s threats and its impact on security and freedom of protest

It must be said again: PTI have every right to peaceful protests and Pakistan’s government as well as powerful institutions must ensure this. However, it should be understood that threats and incitement would logically lead to a change in crowd control policy – something Imran Khan would have known about and considered.

The nature of the police crackdown against protestors and the preemptive arrests of PTI leaders was part of a crowd control policy that had been implemented with Imran Khan’s threats of violence in mind.

PTI and their associates have channelled the idea of needing an Islamist “revolution”. On the 14th of May, supporters of Imran Khan’s party trended a hashtag on Twitter calling for a “blood-soaked revolution” in Pakistan. Retired military officers and personalities supporting Imran Khan have pushed the idea of a 1979 Iranian style Islamist revolution. PTI leader Hamad Azhar has also referred to the Islamist Arab Spring and Egyptian Revolution if Imran Khan is arrested.

PTI Chairman Imran Khan and some of his associated ministers and social media teams have referred to his march as “Jihad” (holy war). Imran Khan said “if there’s anybody whose life is at risk, it’s mine. I don’t care if I get killed because I consider this Jihad” – despite Imran Khan giving up tamely after telling people that his protest and jihad that was worth losing lives for was badly planned. He has, on the 30th of May, once again referred to his resoluteness against the government as “jihad”.

The failure of Imran Khan’s reckless protests aside, if the leader of a political party was successfully mobilising zealous street power while pushing threatening narratives related to religious and political revolution as well as holy wars, it should come as no surprise that the government took these as real threats and mobilised a counter-force using police and other crowd and riot control methods. This article does not aim to justify any use of force against protestors but would employ political leaders in Pakistan not to treat the lives of the public as tools to chase political goals.

My way or the high way: Unite the Ummah, break up Pakistan?

Ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan has a peculiar relationship with Turkey. He is known for being a serial watcher and promoter of Turkish drama series and more importantly, misusing Pakistan’s opportunities to form useful, interest-based relationships with Ankara. Many commentators felt that Turkey’s soft power, as well as effective use of ‘Ummah’ (the global community of Muslims) rhetoric allowed Turkey to make strategic and political inroads into Pakistan for free and for few benefits to Pakistan.

In fact, Pakistan’s relationship with Turkey during Khan’s administration saw a dramatic decline in relations with other critical partners such as Saudi Arabia, which saw Turkey and Pakistan’s futile attempts to form Islamic blocs as a threat to their interests – Pakistan got nothing positive from Turkey and Malaysia’s pushed 2019 Kuala Lumpur Summit except the distrust of Riyadh,

Despite Imran Khan’s religion-oriented foreign policy and perceived brotherhood with Turkish President Erdogan, it was indeed Erdogan who was the first leader to congratulate Shehbaz Sharif on becoming Prime Minister of Pakistan.

While on a visit to close partner Turkey, Prime Minister of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif lambasted the ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan for prioritising domestic political feuds over Pakistan’s national interests, but perhaps more importantly, insinuating that Pakistan could be divided or broken up if Imran Khan didn’t get his way – an idea opposed to Khan’s Ummah-centric objectives.

Imran Khan warned the military establishment that if it didn’t “take the right decision” Pakistan would break into “three parts”.

“The actual problem here is of Pakistan and establishment. If the establishment does not take the right decision, then I will give it to you in writing that they will be destroyed, and the armed forces will be the first ones to be destroyed.” – Imran Khan

Imran Khan is known to have infuriated Pakistan’s military on issues related to not only economics but foreign policy and national security and he has shown and elaborated numerously that he is not afraid to take violent measures to get his way. It could be very easily perceived that Imran Khan is insinuating that if the army didn’t do as he wanted, he could be the cause of Pakistan breaking up into multiple pieces – though he clarified this was actually a plot by India and others, not himself.

Pakistan’s establishment does not tolerate any ideas of splitting the country up, especially since the scars of losing East Pakistan in 1971, so even the mere insinuation of a breakup would not be tolerated. Khan’s rhetoric is becoming more brazen and may be taken as either a sign of intent or one of desperation.

Conclusion

Right now, Pakistan needs stability more than anything, and any kind of early, out of sync election could create further political desperation and opportunism, as well as economic uncertainty in a country already suffering. It seems as though the powerful Pakistani establishment wants to steer the ship back into calmer waters and as such, would prefer to allow Shehbaz Sharif’s government to complete its term, rather than plunge the country into yet another moment of political uncertainty.

These economic and political hardships in Pakistan mean populism would be the people’s opium if it helped calm the masses, but it has ignited dangerous levels of factionalism. The master of populist rhetoric is no doubt PTI Chairman Imran Khan and that rhetoric is being found difficult to counter by the current Prime Minister of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif. Some political commentators have discussed the usefulness of the more populist Maryam Nawaz, daughter of the self-exiled Nawaz Sharif – Shehbaz’s brother – who himself is being touted as someone who may find avenues into the political arena once again, but so far appears willing to let things unfold away from his trouble.

The populism of Imran Khan has turned his ardent supporters even more zealous, which is particularly dangerous when the chairman has always and increasingly uses rhetoric related to jihad, bloodshed and violent revolution and has shown a willingness to use street power to achieve those goals. This makes the threat of political violence in Pakistan all the more likely. Despite this, Imran Khan’s failed protest led to few results except exposing that his street power wasn’t as effective a tool of change as many anticipated. Given that Imran Khan’s party has tried to implicate both the military establishment and the Government of Pakistan in conspiracies, both sides would be happy to see Khan’s failures.

While Khan hasn’t announced a new date for whatever kind of protest he aims to do next, he has shown no willingness to stop or negotiate with any party in Pakistan, instead calling for polls. Just what his next moves are is anyone’s guess, but Khan’s antics have certainly created a police mentality in Shehbaz’s government and only a willingness by Imran Khan to peaceful negotiations can help avert violence between protestors and the state. Shehbaz Sharif has extended an olive branch of sorts by asking for unity in Pakistan, but it remains to be seen if any of Khan’s hidden demands can be met.

Zayyan

President of Midstone Centre for International Affairs. His areas of specialization are national security, foreign policy and geopolitical issues. He can be found on Twitter (@MCIAZayyan).