--- Manoj Saxena
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan addresses his supporters at a protest rally in Pakistan (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons).
It all started on August 14 — Pakistan's Independence Day — when the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, the head of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), descended onto the Pakistani capital city Islamabad with tens of thousands of his supporters demanding the ouster of the incumbent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government. This march for Azadi, or freedom, was joined by the supporters of the firebrand Canadian cleric and leader of the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) — Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri. During the course of the protests the riotous dissidents stormed the grounds next to the National Assembly, the Prime Minister's residence, and even assumed brief control of the head offices of Pakistan's state television network. As the capital lies besieged, littered with containers and waste from prolonged civil agitation, the PML (N) government has unsuccessfully tried to bring things under control by using the police to dispel crowds by force. With unprecedented disturbance unfolding in Islamabad and none of the parties involved backing down from their stated position it appears that Pakistan is once again in a state of crisis, and at the crossroads of history.
After a long and successful career in cricket the former sports icon Imran Khan is now vying for the exit of the democratically elected Nawaz Sharif government in Islamabad on charges of widespread electoral rigging and fraud. The charges, although sensational, are yet to be proven in court and substantiated. For Khan to come up with this in the middle of 2014 is somewhat surprising since Nawaz Sharif had called upon him after the 2013 elections and he, according to the PTI Information Secretary Shireen Mazari, had congratulated Sharif on his electoral victory in May 2013. The other dissident leader Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri — one of the founders of the Minhaj-ul-Quran movement — was one of the most prominent Islamic scholars to have renounced Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al-Qaeda. Outside of Pakistan he is most well-known for issuing a lengthy fatwa — or Islamic decree — against terrorism. Within Pakistan he is often perceived as being close to the military establishment — a relationship dating back to the tenure of the military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who was in charge of governing Pakistan from 1977 to 1988. Qadri cites government heavy handedness, corruption, and misrule as the prime reasons for his agitation.
The grievances — whether real or imaginary — and the resultant political agitation have once again pushed Pakistan to a deep state of crisis. To some extent the disturbances in Islamabad can be attributed to political opportunism by the PTI and PAT but the incumbent government is also not without its flaws. Since his re-election in 2013, Nawaz Sharif himself has been less than forthcoming about some of the appointments made under his regime, and this has resulted in widespread allegations of nepotism. The government's attempt to stop the protesters by lodging containers on the roads to block routes and unleashing brute force of the state not only upon the dissidents but on several media crews as well is in stark contrast to its stated liberal position, and reminds one of the widely-condemned Syrian crackdown on protesters in 2011. Nawaz Sharif has also amassed huge wealth in an otherwise impoverished country and he is considered as corrupt by segments of the country's vocal media and intelligentsia. However, Imran Khan's PTI itself is in charge of the badly managed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where the performance of his government has been subjected to harsh criticism by the same media and intelligentsia.
The country's military establishment, which has until now staged three military coups in the past, is keenly watching the drama unfold. The army is currently headed by General Raheel Sharif, a supposedly apolitical general who has nevertheless offered his good offices to the dissidents for mediation. In a telling reaction to the army's involvement in the ongoing turmoil Nawaz Sharif distanced himself from the army's actions by saying that "The army did not ask to play the role of mediator, neither have we requested them to play such a role." The Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan lamented on the floor of the National Assembly by saying: "They did not trust the judiciary; they did not trust the opposition parties in this assembly; they do not trust lawyers – if they do not trust anyone, but the army, what option did the government have?” With the army, and not the civilian leadership, taking what appears to be a forceful initiative in holding decisive talks with the dissidents analysts fear that a soft coup has already taken place in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has had an uneasy relationship with the army in the past. He was ousted by the then Army Chief Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and sent into exile. Since his return to power Sharif has tried to return the favor and detain Musharraf with pending criminal cases — including treason. The army has long lobbied for an 'honorable' exit for the ex-dictator and has viewed Sharif's actions as intrusive and unwanted. Musharraf himself remains hopeful for a political role in Pakistan and has had friendly relations with the incumbent Army Chief in the past.
As a direct outcome of the protests foreign heads of state such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Maldives President Abdulla Yameen have cancelled their visits to Pakistan citing security concerns. The cancellation of President Xi Jinping's visit – one in which a large amount of investment was to be supposedly announced – will be particularly galling for Pakistan. Of no less importance is a cancellation from a delegation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Nawaz Sharif's own visit to Turkey. The Indians cancelled talks with Pakistan in August this year citing differences over the Pakistan High Commissioner to New Delhi meeting Kashmiri separatists. Another round of talks between India and Pakistan in September already looks unlikely. Furthermore, the Indian Home Ministry confirms that a meeting between Rajnath Singh and Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan is out of the question even on the sidelines of the SAARC Home Ministers' Conference in Kathmandu, Nepal on September 18-19.
There are other factors to consider here. The massive Operation Zarb-e-Azb — currently underway — has led to over 900 Islamist militant casualties and requires full attention of the military. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is attempting to make fresh inroads into Pakistan and its promotional material has appeared in provinces bordering Afghanistan. Not to be outdone, Al Qaeda has recently announced its plans for expanding operations into South Asia. The army is also assisting the government in ensuring minimum civilian casualties during the recent flooding in Pakistan. Under the circumstances an apolitical military concerned with providing security will best serve Pakistan's interests.
Democracy in Pakistan is still in its formative years and democratic institutions will take time to mature and deliver — for this there are no shortcuts. Ultimately there are only two ways that this movement will end: One in which the Nawaz Sharif government survives and goes back to governing the country and another in which it does not. If the government does not make it through the ongoing political tsunami and collapses then it would mean massive uncertainty for the country. Even if the government does survive the current crisis Nawaz Sharif will most likely be a weak Prime Minister who would have lost face internally and externally. In both cases the country will have to brace itself for tough times ahead as chances for steady governance aimed to achieve economic growth and political stability still appear to be distant. For now it is too early to gauge the true extent of the damage this political tsunami has left in its wake. One can only hope that all involved realize that their fundamental rights come with fundamental duties.