Is Pakistan Heading for Greater Civil Unrest?

By: Manish Rai

The arrest of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan by security forces in a courthouse in Islamabad has caused political tensions in the country to reach unprecedented heights. The subsequent chain of events was difficult to imagine in Pakistan. Mr Khan‘s arrest provoked a rare response against the military, the country‘s most influential institution. Supporters of Pakistan TehreekeInsaf (PTI) organized demonstrations across the country, including vandalizing the residence of the Corps Commander in Lahore, attacking the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Army in Rawalpindi, and setting fire to military installations in various other places. This kind of antiarmy sentiment is unprecedented and has not been seen before in Pakistan. In the past, people who were fed up with corrupt politicians used to welcome the army‘s martial law, but times have changed and the army is now experiencing its lowest level of popularity among the public. The arrest of the former Prime Minister has been perceived as an action of the Pakistan Army, rather than the civilian government of Shehbaz Sharif, which has caused the people to become enraged. Currently, antiarmy sentiment is rapidly increasing in Pakistani society, with people continuing to express their disapproval of the military on social media. Khan has been successful in creating a successful narrative through various social media platforms, criticizing the Pakistan army and how it has been sustaining a corrupt government. The army‘s attempts to counteract this have been unsuccessful. Khan has even managed to attribute the failed assassination attempt on him to Major General Faisal Naseer of the InterServices Intelligence (ISI).

The public naming of a senior serving officer provoked a strong reaction from the InterServices Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the military, and caused outrage among the army leadership. The arrest of Imran Khan is also seen in relation to this, as many political analysts believe that Khan has crossed the army‘sred line, creating an alarming situation for the army. This is due to the fact that Pakistan is a praetorian state, and the army has played a praetorian ruletype role for much of its existence. Since Pakistan‘s inception in 1947, no prime minister has ever completed an entire five-year parliamentary term, and generals have directly ruled the country on several occasions. Imran Khan’s greatest political achievement to date is that he has been able to portray the top leadership of the army as powerhungry generals to the masses. The deep state of Pakistan has consistently propagated the idea that most political leaders are corrupt and are solely responsible for the country‘s struggles. They have also suggested that the army is the only organization that can bring order and ensure stability and security. However, the reality is that prolonged military rule has had a lasting and farreaching effect on the politics, economy, and foreign policy of Pakistan, with the most significant consequence being the weakening of the state constitution. With the current atmosphere of antiestablishment sentiment, it appears that the Pakistani people are losing faith in the army and viewing it as just another political organization.

The ongoing political confrontation and increasing polarization in the country has left the balance of power in the hands of the military, though it is under immense pressure. In the past, the army has implemented various experiments with democracy, such as direct martial law, Field Marshal Ayub Khan‘s concept of guided democracy, and General Bajwa‘s hybrid form of government. However, the public is now growing increasingly impatient due to factors such as anger with the political elite, rising inflation, mis-governance, and current political instability, and they are unwilling to accept any political arrangement that does not take into account their wishes. The victories of Khan‘s party PTI in local elections in the financial capital of Karachi and the most populous province of Punjab have been seen as a litmus test for the national mood, and this has emboldened Imran Khan, who is insisting on general elections as he believes he will secure a sweeping victory.

The pressure tactics employed by the establishment against Imran Khan have only served to make him more popular rather than deterring him. It is also worth noting that Mr. Khan‘s large support base is mainly from Punjab, which is the core of the Pakistan Army. It is one thing for the army to oppress other ethnic groups such as Baloch, Bengalis, Sindhis, and Pashtuns, but quite another to do the same in Punjab. This makes it very difficult for the army to use a massive crackdown on the PTI chief and his supporters. However, with so much bloodshed already, the army would lose face if it could not now keep Khan in jail for a significant amount of time by obtaining a prison sentence through a judicial process. It is a hard truth that any harsh action against Imran Khan will only increase his support base and portray the army in a negative light. This further complicates the dilemma of the establishment, as they do not want to suffer the same fate as the military junta of Myanmar, which is currently facing a civil war against its rule. If no reconciliation is reached between the Pak Army and Imran Khan, this confrontation will only intensify and could potentially lead to a major civil unrest.

About the Author: Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Afghanistan-Pakistan region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround