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Pakistan At a Dangerous Crossroads

Baqir Sajjad
Two men with weapons are detaining another man on the street as people look on.
Police officials arresting the protestors during a demonstration of Tehreek-e-insaf against the arrest of Imran Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan. (May 11, 2023)

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's arrest on corruption charges triggered widespread protests across the country on May 9. These demonstrations have not only led to violence and instability but have also revealed deeper concerns about the risk of institutional implosion, which could jeopardize the country's long-term stability and the future of democracy.

The Pakistani Army swiftly labeled May 9 as a 'Black Day,' emphasizing that Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf's 'lust for power' achieved what its enemy (referring to India) had failed to do in 75 years. The breach of the Army's headquarters, the ransacking of the corps commander's residence in Lahore, the vandalism of military monuments and displays, and the pelting of stones at military convoys were undoubtedly painful for the soldiers.

While the protests were not transformative in nature, they were undoubtedly unprecedented. Pakistan has not witnessed such events since the Eastern flank separated in 1971 to form Bangladesh, despite previous instances of coups, the execution of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto by a dictator after a sham trial, and the discovery and elimination of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the country by the US.

The situation appeared even more chaotic due to rumors of some senior commanders refusing to obey the orders of Army Chief Gen Asim Munir. The Army attempted to dispel these speculations by issuing a statement affirming that the military remains united and that no one had tendered their resignation. However, reports of Lahore's Corps Commander Salman Ghani, whose house had been attacked, being relieved of his command only served to reinforce these perceptions.

Furthermore, Gen Munir's tour of garrisons to connect with officers and reaffirm his command left little doubt that he was under pressure. Previous army chiefs, such as Gen Pervez Musharraf, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, and Gen Qamar Bajwa, also undertook similar actions when facing internal challenges during their tenures.

Meanwhile, Imran Khan was granted bail in the cases against him after the Supreme Court declared the manner in which he was arrested from the High Court as unacceptable. He returned to Lahore in a somewhat triumphant manner, greeted by large crowds in the capital of Punjab, which eventually led to the conclusion of the protests.

Despite a semblance of uneasy calm returning to the streets after four tumultuous days, this should not be misconstrued as an end to the crisis sparked by Khan's arrest

However, the government has launched a heavy-handed crackdown on the protesters, arresting approximately 3,500 individuals and imprisoning a significant portion of the PTI's senior leadership. Despite a semblance of uneasy calm returning to the streets after four tumultuous days, this should not be misconstrued as an end to the crisis sparked by Khan's arrest. The ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement's demonstration of power against the judiciary, coupled with the relentless desire of the government and the military to see the PTI chief imprisoned for an extended period and neutralize his political party, suggests that the situation remains precarious.

Interestingly, Khan has emerged from this ordeal even more aggressive, in contrast to some other leaders who became subdued after facing similar experiences. It is believed that Khan's arrest stemmed from his direct accusation against a senior intelligence officer of plotting the failed attempt on his life in November, which left him wounded. However, upon his release, Khan escalated matters by pointing fingers at none other than Army Chief Gen. Asim Munir.

In one of his interviews from the High Court, where he appeared to secure bail, Khan stated, "I doubt there is any sense in the Army Chief right now because he's so petrified if I win the elections, I'll de-notify him... If you have a man up there who in order to preserve himself is dismantling our democracy, our constitution, and fundamental rights. He is basically dismantling the future of this country to protect himself."

These events provide clear indications that the noose is tightening around Khan and his PTI. It is a familiar narrative in Pakistan for an opposition party that has fallen out of favor with the military to face adverse consequences. However, more significantly, the Army, which has historically held a tight grip on power in the country, has emerged as the most damaged institution from this episode.

Lingering Resentment

The resentment towards the Army is not a new phenomenon and has largely been fueled by its interference in political matters, although there are other grievances as well. Former Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa, in one of his farewell speeches, acknowledged that much of the animosity towards the military stemmed from its "unconstitutional" involvement in domestic politics for seven decades.

The Army's interference in politics has taken various forms, including orchestrating coups, removing civilian governments, or exerting indirect control over weak administrations. This interference has often occurred in collaboration with the judiciary, civil bureaucracy, allied politicians, clergy, and elements within the corporate sector— collectively referred to as the establishment in Pakistan. Politicians, on their part, have been quick to yield space to the military due to their own shortcomings, leading to the erosion of institutional boundaries.

Since 2007, civilians have made concerted efforts to reclaim the lost space and have achieved some success. However, the military quickly adapted by mastering the art of controlling from behind the scenes. This was evident during Imran Khan's tenure as prime minister and has continued with even greater intensity during the current government, despite Gen. Bajwa stating in his farewell speeches that the Army had made a policy decision to stay out of politics.

It is worth noting that the ruling alliance, led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), had vehemently criticized the military and intelligence leadership for their political interference when they were in opposition. However, their criticism lacked consistency, and as soon as they saw an opportunity for reconciliation and a return to power, they fell silent.

While politicians may have struck deals with the Army to safeguard their own interests, the people of Pakistan have been unforgiving. The resentment towards the military and its interference in politics remains a significant issue that needs to be addressed.

Transition from Cold Anger to Hot Rage

When Imran Khan was ousted through a vote of no confidence on April 9, 2022, he was widely unpopular because of bad governance. However, the following night, massive crowds spontaneously turned out across the country to support him. Despite Khan and his cabinet colleagues not being present at the protest sites, it was a powerful display of solidarity. It happened because people were annoyed at the political intrigues through which he was ousted and the leaders that replaced his government. Encouraged by this public response, Khan became emboldened and pushed for early elections, a goal he has yet to achieve.

An often overlooked development at the start of Khan's agitation campaign was the overwhelming support he received from military veterans. Many of them had sons or relatives serving in the Army. Those young officers play a significant role in shaping sentiments within the ranks. The top brass eventually recognized the significance of this support and distanced themselves from the veteran bodies, even though a couple of them were being funded by the General Headquarters at the time.

During the mass mobilization, the former prime minister persistently launched verbal attacks on the military leadership, casting it in an unfavorable light. This allowed him to tap into the simmering anti-military sentiment in the country and, more importantly, instilled a sense of courage among the people to question the Army and stand up against it. However, much of this sentiment was characterized by cold anger. Even after surviving an assassination attempt while leading a march towards Islamabad on November 4, 2022, Khan's supporters did not resort to violence, despite his direct accusations against the establishment for plotting to kill him.

As Khan's rhetoric against the military escalated, the military responded proportionally. The increased bitterness in Khan's tone did not compel the military to retreat, but it pushed him into the legal crosshairs.

The arrest of the PTI chief by a paramilitary force and his subsequent handover to the country's anti-graft body on corruption allegations in the Al-Qadir Trust case forced the transition from public’s cold anger to hot rage. Khan stands accused of obtaining hundreds of acres of land from property tycoon Malik Riaz in exchange for paying a 5 billion PKR fine imposed by the Supreme Court on Riaz's housing project. The fine was paid from the 190 million pounds that Riaz had surrendered to Britain's National Crime Agency as part of a settlement in a money laundering probe, which was subsequently returned to the Pakistani government.

It is important to note that this was not the first case against Khan since his ouster from office. He had been implicated in numerous cases, but the government had been unable to arrest him due to bail granted by the courts and the fear of public backlash.

The Implications

The violent reaction to the arrest of the former prime minister signifies an escalation of the multiple crises that have plagued the country over the past year. The existing challenges of political polarization, economic hardships, and security concerns have now been compounded by mass agitation. Previously, frustration was building in the country, largely due to the economic pain caused by poor government policies, but people had not yet taken to the streets. Khan's arrest changed that dynamic.

The populist rage can be attributed, in part, to the fact that society is not being given the opportunity to express its frustration through the electoral process. Elections for provincial assemblies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been due following the early dissolution of the assemblies, and the constitutional timeframe of 90 days for holding elections has passed. However, the government and the military are preventing these elections from taking place, despite a clear ruling from the Supreme Court.

The space for civil liberties, which was already limited, has further diminished due to restrictions on freedom of expression and the suppression of the opposition. This has left people with little hope for a better future.

These contributing factors, when combined with skyrocketing inflation, which reached around 37% in April making the cost of living unbearable, fueled the anger among the masses.

The poor performance record of the PDM government undoubtedly impacts its perception among the masses, but it has also exacerbated the public relations crisis for the military, which was already struggling with a tarnished image.

Uncharted Territory

The military finds itself in uncharted territory as it grapples with this situation.

The internal challenge it faces poses a rare threat to the unity of command. While the army has managed to maintain cohesion and prevent a complete collapse of the state during previous crises and periods of turmoil, the reported differences within its ranks severely undermine its ability to stabilize the situation. This erosion of public trust in the institution can lead to further instability and social unrest, while external partners are left uncertain about who is in charge.

Diminishing public support not only affects the military's prestige but also hampers its ability to achieve operational objectives and safeguard institutional interests. This is especially crucial for a country situated in a challenging neighborhood, with its army engaged in ongoing counter-terrorism operations. The growing gap between the military and civilians is likely to widen further due to the army's decision to try the protesters involved in the May 9 attacks against military installations under the Army Act. Questions will arise about the fairness of the trials and due process, and this course of action by the military will have detrimental consequences for democracy in the country.

In the past, the military relied on the judiciary to legitimize its actions, and the unity within the ‘establishment’ helped navigate those crises. However, the current scenario reveals that the superior courts are taking an independent stance, and similar support from them can no longer be taken for granted by the military. Meanwhile, a concerted campaign has been launched to undermine the court and its rulings, while simultaneously highlighting the dysfunctional relations among senior judges. It would be accurate to say that what we are witnessing is more of a conflict within the establishment itself, rather than a power struggle between the PTI, the army, and other political parties.

The Way Out

Finding a resolution to the current impasse will be challenging due to deep-rooted mistrust and hardened positions from all sides. The absence of a credible conflict resolution mechanism within the country further complicates the situation. The Army and the Supreme Court, traditionally seen as arbiters in times of crisis, have experienced controversies and internal divisions, diminishing their stature. Additionally, Parliament, which should have been a platform for settling disputes, lacks credibility and is further weakened by the absence of a credible opposition in the National Assembly.

Finding a resolution to the current impasse will be challenging due to deep-rooted mistrust and hardened positions from all sides.

To move beyond this political crisis, all stakeholders must immediately agree on holding elections in the country and ensuring a level playing field for all parties. Excluding Imran Khan or the PTI from the electoral process would not serve anyone's interests. This decision should be left to the people through fair and transparent elections.

The military needs to withdraw itself from active involvement in politics and strictly adhere to its constitutional role of safeguarding the country. This step would not only restore political stability but also improve the military's standing in the eyes of the public.

The PTI, as a major party in the parliamentary system, must embrace its responsibility and recognize the centrality of parliament in its activities. It should acknowledge other political parties as legitimate stakeholders in the system rather than denouncing them as corrupt. Only then can stability be achieved, and the dominance of the military be mitigated.

International partners of Pakistan should respond more assertively to the ongoing crises. They should privately and publicly urge Islamabad and Rawalpindi to ensure that their actions align with international human rights laws and standards. Furthermore, they should call on the government to guarantee unhindered participation of opposition parties in the political process.

Addressing the underlying issues behind the crises facing Pakistan cannot be further delayed. Failure to do so will only perpetuate and solidify these crises as permanent fixtures in the country's landscape.

It also needs to be realized that a better opportunity for achieving the goal of civilian supremacy may not come again in near future, if this one is to be missed.


The maelstrom of political turmoil, public discontent, and a precarious power struggle intensified by Khan’s arrest has exacerbated Pakistan’s predicament in which the clash between peoples’ aspirations and military influence threatens the very foundations of democracy.

The path forward requires bold actions: fair and transparent elections, a military withdrawal from politics, recognition of parliamentary supremacy, and international pressure for human rights and inclusive political processes. Only through a concerted effort to restore trust, embrace democratic principles, and address the underlying issues can Pakistan hope to break free from the cycle of crises and forge a path towards a stable, prosperous future.

Baqir Sajjad, a longtime diplomatic and national security correspondent with Dawn newspaper, is the Wilson Center’s Pakistan Fellow.

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Baqir Sajjad

Baqir Sajjad

Former Wilson Center Pakistan Fellow;
Diplomatic and National Security Correspondent, Dawn Newspaper
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