The brief arrest of the former PM has again unleashed political turmoil in Pakistan, amid speculation that powerful military opponents may have orchestrated the unrest for their own interests.

Following the spectacular arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan over an alleged corruption case on 9 May, Pakistan veered into anarchy and mayhem for a couple of days as enraged supporters went on a rampage, torching scores of government structures, including military posts, an air force base, and the home of the commander of the Lahore Corps.

On Friday, following his release on bail by order of the Islamabad High Court (IHC), Khan spoke to a foreign media outlet, attributing his arrest not to the internal security agencies but to a single individual – the army chief. The much-revered Pakistani army, he claimed, had unjustly tarnished his reputation for the events that transpired in the country.

Ever since Pakistan’s parliament ousted the former prime minister through a no-confidence vote last year, Khan has been leveling serious accusations against the army’s top generals, so his latest statement is just the most recent of many. Khan’s removal from power in parliament paved the way for the formation of a government under his successor, Shehbaz Sharif – led by the eleven-party alliance known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) – who assumed office in early April 2022 amid widespread national polarization over the ‘soft coup.’

Imran Khan’s ‘illegal’ arrest

Two days after Khan’s controversial arrest, in an unexpected turn of events, the Supreme Court of Pakistan pronounced the arrest of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan “illegal” and ordered his immediate release. As a result of the court order, Khan’s supporters took to the streets again in jubilation and torched half a dozen police vehicles in different parts of the country.

Pakistan’s apex court then ordered the PTI chief to stay put in the Police Guest House in Islamabad under court protection until his appearance before the IHC for his bail application re-hearing. Ultimately, the IHC granted Khan a two-week bail along with blanket protection against every case registered against him by the government.

Zahid Khan, spokesperson for the Awami National Party (ANP), a member of the unity government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, claims the judiciary is solely concerned with the rights of only Imran Khan because the family members of the majority of the judges are supporters of Khan’s party.

“The judges sitting on the Supreme Court benches belonged to one province, Punjab, and they are paranoid about restoring the PTI government in Punjab to appease Imran Khan. They are least concerned with the principled stand of other smaller provinces or the national interest.”

Zahid laments that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court greeted Khan in the courtroom during the 11 May proceedings and said, “Glad to meet you,” despite Imran being accused of massive corruption and the illegal sale of state gifts, including an expensive Graff wristwatch, gifted to Imran by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The chief justice, he says, did not ask a single question concerning the violent protests that Khan’s party had staged the day before.

While Khan faces over a hundred legal cases, most of them are based on frivolous charges that will not withstand legal scrutiny. Instead, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Pakistan’s federal anti-corruption watchdog, has focused on two main graft cases in which they claim to have irrefutable evidence to prosecute the former prime minister.

Khan has been trying to avoid proceeding in these cases on the pretext of health issues and security concerns. These include the high-profile Toshakhana (state gifts depository) and the Al-Qadir Trust cases.

NAB claims that Khan and his wife, Bushra Bibi, persistently refused to assist in the investigation of the Al-Qadir Trust case. The pair is accused of conspiring with real estate mogul Malik Riaz to defraud the Pakistani government out of 50 billion rupees ($17.6 million). This is the same case in which the bureau sought the arrest of Khan, and with the assistance of the Rangers paramilitary force, dramatically stormed the Islamabad courthouse on 9 May to apprehend him.

A ‘dark chapter’ in Pakistan’s history

On 11 May, the army was summoned to assist the police in maintaining law and order in several major cities, which helped to restore some semblance of normalcy. Although there were no untoward incidents that day, Khan’s PTI party’s top leaders have been detained under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) Ordinance for 30 days.

While unofficial estimates suggest a higher number, government sources claim that over half a dozen protestors were killed during the two-day period of turmoil, with hundreds of others, including security personnel, injured during the melee. In response to the vandalism and looting carried out by Khan’s partisans, over 1,400 “miscreants” have been detained over the last two days.

At least 27 public and private vehicles, as well as 17 government buildings, including the Radio Pakistan building, a plane based at the Mianwali Airbase, the Pakistan Election Commission office, the military General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, and other security agency buildings, were set on fire by small groups of demonstrators brandishing clubs and petrol bombs.

“May 9 will be remembered as a dark chapter,” said a Pakistani military public relations press statement issued the following day. The gang, which the army described as “wearing a political cloak,” allegedly accomplished what adversaries were unable to do in 75 years, all “in the lust for power.”

According to information gathered by The Cradle, authorities are actively engaged in identifying the individuals responsible for setting the military installation on fire during the protest campaign. They have already arrested some culprits through the use of geofencing technology and available video clips. The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) is also working with security agencies to apprehend those who caused a financial loss (according to some unofficial estimates) of approximately 2 billion rupees ($7 million) to Pakistan’s exchequer.

Who’s to blame for the unrest?

Some analysts have questioned the armed forces’ claims of “restraint” when security agencies were apparently unable to control a small mob of a few hundred protesters who freely ransacked sensitive military sites without facing any resistance. While PTI stalwarts denounced the violent actions of the protestors, they insisted that the troublemakers were outsiders who did not belong to their party.

Asad Umer, the PTI secretary general, told The Cradle before his arrest that those involved in the incident were not PTI supporters. He speculated that the government might have deliberately inserted their own loyalists into the protests to discredit the PTI:

“The PTI has never indulged in any illegal activities or used violence in protest demonstrations. We reserve our right to peaceful protest as guaranteed by the Pakistani constitution. During the protest campaign, the PTI leadership has specifically instructed its workers to maintain peace and refrain from causing damage to either private or public property.”

Asad claimed that although PTI activists were understandably enraged at the party chief’s “illegal” detention, they weren’t responsible for setting fire to any public or private property.

According to Ayesha Siddiqa, a Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and author of several books, the army chose not to intervene directly in order to avoid putting itself at risk. Instead, they allowed the police and Rangers to handle the situation.

She informs The Cradle that “The Corps Commander’s Lahore mansion was abandoned a week ago, leading some of my contacts to speculate that the authorities may have been ignoring the vandalism on purpose,” and adds that this raises the possibility that the incident was staged by the military group backing the current army chief, General Syed Asim Munir.

Siddiqa drew a parallel with the Egyptian military’s strategy, where they offered up President Hosni Mubarak as a scapegoat to deceive the protesting masses.

The Egyptian military, she maintained, took back control, put on trial the democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Morsi, and sentenced him to death. “PTI backers are ecstatic after driving back the army, but their happiness will not last long,” she warns.

Why Khan failed to deliver

Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician, assumed power in a controversial 2018 election that Pakistan’s major political parties claimed was manipulated by the army – in collusion with the judiciary – primarily because the army’s top brass had developed serious differences with the disgraced, three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Days before that momentous general election, Sharif was sentenced to 10 years in prison in one of three corruption cases lodged against him and his family by the federal anti-corruption agency. Previously, Sharif was removed from his position as prime minister by Pakistan’s Supreme Court after a corruption investigation over his ownership of four luxury apartments in London’s exclusive Mayfair neighborhood.

Former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and former chief of the military spy agency, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, played a major role in instituting the graft cases against the Sharif family and in winning parliamentary support for Khan to form a government – despite his attainment of a simple majority in the hotly-debated 2018 elections.

Post-election, Khan’s administration faced challenges in effectively governing the country, resulting in a struggling economy, mounting debts, increased unemployment, and soaring inflation throughout his four-year tenure.

These challenges have shed light on the intricate dynamics between the military, political parties, and external influences that impact Pakistan’s governance at every turn. As the country looks toward the future, the key to its success lies in securing leaders with both the vision and capacity to confront and contain these influential constituents and guide Pakistan toward stability and prosperity.

One crucial pathway to success will be to comfortably embrace Eurasian interconnectivity – as other Asian states are rapidly doing – which Khan recognized as a strategic priority for Islamabad. However, other Pakistani forces – potentially with US backing – may have perceived this vision as a threat, which is why Khan had to go and why he continues to be under attack.

Source: The Cradle

Zulfi Bukhar: 'There is no democracy in Pakistan without Imran Khan' (Times Radio, 05.12.2023))