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Unprecedented is the word repeatedly used to describe the violent and chaotic events unfolding in Pakistan in the aftermath of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s dramatic arrest on Tuesday. Khan was at the Islamabad High Court for a hearing on one set of corruption charges when he was arrested for another set of charges brought by the National Accountability Bureau, Pakistan’s anti-corruption agency, whose agents, backed by paramilitary troops, broke the windows after Khan’s guards refused to open the doors of the courthouse. Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party called his arrest an “abduction.”
Anti-army sentiments have been simmering in the country since Khan’s ouster last year, evident from the massive rallies he led. He is possibly one of the first politicians with such widespread popular support to challenge the military establishment so publicly and blatantly. Hence, his arrest was anticipated. But no one imagined that, when the moment arrived, his supporters would gather outside army headquarters and burn down the residences of senior army generals. In one viral video, a woman is seen shaking the gates of the headquarters in Rawalpindi. In another, a woman is walking toward the security forces, throwing her scarf at them in protest before officers drag her away by her hair.
Since Tuesday, at least eight people have died and several have been injured following clashes with the police. In Peshawar, Khan’s supporters raided a building housing Radio Pakistan, damaging equipment and setting fire to it. Public and private property, including buses, police vans, ambulances and metro stations were also damaged. The local governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces asked the army to step in and troops were deployed on the streets. Social media was blocked and the internet was suspended across the country. Over 1,400 people in Punjab have been arrested, including senior leaders from the PTI. Members of the diaspora also took to the streets, protesting in cities like New York, London and Toronto.
Out of all the videos that went viral, the ones that showed the looting and vandalism at a senior army general’s residence in Lahore — which was later burned down — epitomize the state of affairs in Pakistan. People savoring frozen strawberries, taking peacocks found at the premises — because they were bought with “the people’s money” — and a person walking out with a plate of mutton korma and a bottle of soda in hand shows the depth of the economic disparity and the extent of public distrust in the political establishment in Pakistan. It also shows how Pakistanis have not lost their sense of humor in the midst of all the crises. One person termed this loot “maal-e-ghanimat,” which can be translated to “war booty.”
However, political analysts were quick to remind readers that the arrest of a former prime minister is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan — political turmoil and interventions by the powerful military have been the norm for many decades. Khan is the seventh prime minister to face this fate. But the difference this time is the strength of Khan’s popular support and how aggressively his supporters have taken to the streets.
“None of what’s happening in Pakistan against Imran Khan & the PTI is new. The military establishment is following its old playbook. The difference is in the response: the context around them has changed. Khan’s supporters are willing to take to the streets, there’s social media,” tweeted Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institute.
The National Accountability Bureau has detained and investigated former prime ministers, politicians and retired military officers in the past, and many view it as a tool used by those in power, especially the military, to crack down on political opponents. When Khan was in power, his government arrested Shahbaz Sharif, then in the opposition, through the bureau. Sharif is now the prime minister and, when he took office, the multiple corruption cases against him were dropped due to lack of evidence. Now Khan faces multiple charges of corruption. Under the latest corruption charges, he is accused of accepting millions of dollars’ worth of property from real estate tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain for the Al-Qadir University Trust, which Khan and his wife head, in exchange for providing benefits to Hussain, whose accounts were frozen by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency in an investigation related to “dirty money.”
It was the machinations of the military establishment that had catapulted Khan to power in 2018 through preelection interference and election-day rigging in favor of the PTI, wrote Lahore-based journalist Kunwar Khuldune Shahid in New Lines last year. Khan was then seen as a more viable alternative to the Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League-N, and he was on the same page as the military for most of his tenure. But when he attempted to stretch the limits of his power, the tussle between the two started. Hence, his subsequent ouster in April 2022 fit the “pattern of military selections being churned in and out of power.” But there is a tangible difference in the magnitude of aftershocks, wrote Shahid, which has been apparent this week.
Since the alleged attempt to assassinate Khan during a rally last year, among the people he blamed included a senior military officer in the intelligence service. A war of words broke out. Khan called the officer “Dirty Harry” — a reference to the American actor Clint Eastwood’s role as a rogue police officer. Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the army’s media wing, denounced Khan’s “irresponsible and baseless” allegations. Hours before his arrest, Khan warned that he was ready to die to foil the plot hatched by “Dirty Harry.”
Apart from the political mudslinging, what is most important to remember is that this upheaval comes at a time when Pakistan is facing one of its worst economic crises and the cash-strapped nation is trying to avoid a default. With dwindling reserves and a stalled $6.5 billion IMF program that will expire in June, financing sources are scarce. Pakistan’s rupee has lost nearly 50% in the last 12 months and, this week, it tumbled further to a record low of 290 rupees to the dollar. The weekly inflation rate of 46% is also a record. Political instability is only expected to make it worse and could delay the IMF bailout. “Political stability is linked to economic stability and I don’t see any sign of revival of the economy,” Shahid Hasan, a former adviser to Pakistan on economic affairs, told AP. Political leaders should set aside their egos and “sit together and think about Pakistan, which is on the verge of a default,” he said.
However, this week and in the coming days, Pakistanis the world over will be glued to the news as events unfold in the country. Khan’s party has appealed for calm, but the standoff has put the country on high alert. As of Thursday, Pakistan’s supreme court ruled that Khan’s arrest was illegal and ordered his immediate release. He is expected to appear at the Islamabad High Court on Friday. But the question that remains on everyone’s mind is what will happen next. Where is Pakistan headed? Will elections be held by October? And will Khan and his party be allowed to contest them?
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