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A huge setback

Zahid Hussain

It has come as a huge setback for the government and the security establishment that the Supreme Court yesterday declared Imran Khan’s arrest illegal and ordered his release.

The former prime minister walked out triumphantly as a free man just days after his arrest, and was to be lodged overnight at the Police Lines Guest House under the apex court’s protection till his appearance before the Islamabad High Court today.

The court ruling came amid violent protests sweeping the country. The public reaction to Khan’s arrest has been unprecedented. Widespread violence paralysed life in major cities.

With the situation getting out of control of civilian law enforcement, the army was called in. Internet and social media services were suspended. The events of the past few days have pushed the country close to anarchy. What happens next is anybody’s guess.

Imran Khan’s arrest appeared imminent for some time after he was implicated in scores of cases. The noose had tightened around him with his increasing attacks on the military leadership.

Repeatedly accusing a senior army official of plotting to assassinate him, he had been on the warpath against the very security establishment that had propelled him to power in the past. His anti-military rhetoric had become even more aggressive in recent weeks.

Although the former prime minister was arrested in a corruption case, his increasingly combative statements seem to have been a major factor in his detention. A day before his arrest, the military in a hard-hitting statement warned that his “highly irresponsible and baseless allegations” were “unacceptable”.

The former prime minister is deemed to have crossed the security establishment’s ‘red line’. The spectacle of scores of paramilitary soldiers breaking into an office room inside the IHC reinforced that impression.

Any move to disqualify the former prime minister or ban his party would be like adding fuel to the fire.

Imran Khan’s detention had given an ironic twist to the country’s power politics. A once trusted ally has now turned into the security establishment’s nemesis. He has been locked in a fierce confrontation with his erstwhile patrons since his ouster from power, for which he has blamed the former army leadership. And there has not been any cessation in his hostile attitude even after the change of guard.

What happened on May 9 was foretold; nor was the PTI supporters’ violent reaction after the arrest of their leader any surprise. Imran Khan had repeatedly warned of a Sri Lankan kind of mass uprising.

The PTI has demonstrated its capacity to mobilise street power, but it was certainly not a spontaneous outburst of public anger. The attacks on the military installations seemed pre-planned.

Some leaked audio tapes appear to suggest that the attack on the Lahore corps commander’s official residence was led by local PTI leaders. The organised manner in which a fortified building in a top security zone was completely gutted indicates it was not just mob action.

What is most curious is that there was no move to stop the attackers as they ransacked the place. The security detail had simply disappeared. The military later justified its inaction by saying that it “showed patience and restraint and exercised extreme tolerance, not even caring about its reputation, in the larger interest of the country”.

But the images of people ransacking the residence of a top regional commander and attacking military installations in various parts of the country without resistance presented a picture of a fractured state. The civilian administration seemed to have completely collapsed in the face of enraged mobs. The events of May 9 have utterly exposed the fragility of the PDM government, with the prime minister deciding to stay out of Pakistan while the country burned.

What has transpired raises questions about Shehbaz Sharif’s capacity to provide leadership in times of crisis. It’s apparent that the coalition government with its dwindling support base is now completely dependent on the security establishment for its survival.

What happened this week further demonstrates that the Sharif administration is losing control. The deployment of the army to maintain law and order has sucked the security establishment more deeply into the fray. With growing political instability, the role of the military will further increase. What we are witnessing is creeping army rule.

The manner of the arrest of the former prime minister, the leader of the most powerful political force in the country, and the crackdown on his party has escalated the confrontation, thereby further deepening the polarisation.

While the rampant violence and the destruction of state property that ensued after his detention cannot be justified and the perpetrators must be punished, any move to disqualify the former prime minister or ban his party would be like adding fuel to the fire.

The government should learn some lessons from our own history. The disqualification of a popular political leader has never worked. Any such action carries long-term implications for the democratic process.

Politics of revenge will only deepen the crisis. It may be true that the persecution of the opposition during Imran Khan’s rule has come back to haunt him, but the government must not take the same path. He has indeed been responsible for confrontationist politics but it’s in the interest of the state to defuse the situation.

The country today is more divided than ever. There seems to be a complete breakdown of the system with the escalating clash between the institutions. It’s an extremely perilous situation for a country facing multiple crises.

Most worrisome is the looming collapse of the economy. With no agreement with the IMF in sight, the prospect of default is staring us in the face. Growing political instability will make it even more difficult for the government to get any external financial support needed to bail us out.

It’s not just the economy, but also the rising terrorist threat that has imperiled national security. The questionable legitimacy of the present dispensation has rendered the situation untenable.

The reckless power struggle has eroded the writ of the state. With the country in the midst of an economic meltdown amid the faltering democratic political process, the prospect of a return of despotic rule is very real. 



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