After former Prime Minister Imran Khan was detained by paramilitary soldiers on corruption accusations, a violent uprising against the strong military has placed Pakistan on edge.
Unrest has expanded throughout many major cities, culminating in unprecedented sights of angry people storming into military premises and setting army personnel’s homes on fire, directly threatening Pakistan’s long-untouchable military.
Pakistan has had political instability, regime changes, and coups since 1947, with the military often deciding who stays in power.
The army has accused Khan and his followers of crossing a red line by “systematically attacking” military property and installations and raising “anti-army slogans.”
“Any further attack on the army, including all law enforcement agencies, military and state installations and properties, will be severely retaliated against,” the military declared Wednesday, its first statement since Khan’s arrest.
“The group that wants to push Pakistan into civil war will be responsible.”
Six prominent Khan party leaders were detained for “inciting arson and violent protests,” with additional arrests likely.
In an election year, Pakistan’s 220 million citizens face a severe economic crisis as rising inflation makes food and gasoline unaffordable.
Khan has often indicated in interviews that attempts to arrest him are designed to eliminate him. The administration denies this.
On May 9, paramilitary forces stormed a judiciary in Islamabad to arrest Khan on several corruption accusations.
His lawyer informed CNN that he is on “physical remand” for eight days for unlawfully purchasing land for a university.
Khan was also accused with illegally selling gifts from foreign leaders while in government.
Khan told his fans “the time has come for all of you to come and struggle for your rights” in a pre-recorded message posted on YouTube by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party following his detention.
Khan’s detention escalated a months-long military-Khan conflict.
Lahore and Peshawar, Khan’s political strongholds, experienced the strongest protests and security force clashes.
Protesters burned Radio Pakistan’s Peshawar offices.
A hospital official reported three deaths and over 30 injuries from the fighting. After 25 police cars and 14 government buildings were set on fire in Punjab, the country’s most populous state, police detained roughly 1,000 Khan supporters, according to Reuters.
Travel cautions were issued for private schools countrywide. To control the unrest, the authorities restricted mobile internet services, affecting Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Digital payment systems and popular applications have been interrupted.
Reuters reported that three provinces had banned all gatherings. Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have requested military security.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif termed Khan’s followers “terrorists” and warned them to “behave or face punishment.”
Khan is widely recognized as a politician, philanthropist, and sports celebrity in Pakistan and abroad.
He graduated from Oxford University with a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics. He helped Pakistan win the 1992 World Cup.
He created the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) in 1996 after becoming disillusioned with corruption in a country ruled by dynasties.
The party languished in the electoral wilderness until 2013, when Khan’s pledge to address corruption and economic problems gained new voters. Though they lost a majority, the PTI led that year’s general election.
Khan was elected prime minister in 2018 with military support, pledging a “new Pakistan” free of poverty and corruption.
In a country where young people are anti-American and anti-establishment, his Islamic populism won them over.
Khan was ousted last year in a vote of no confidence citing economic mismanagement after his relationship with the generals worsened.
Khan increasingly denounced the military’s involvement in politics after his departure, igniting widespread protests.
Khan escaped a November political rally gunshot his party labeled an assassination attempt.
Police and paramilitary personnel have attempted to arrest Khan many times in recent months on corruption accusations, including one in March that ended in turmoil when his followers confronted officials outside his home.
Khan looks to have benefited from the political turmoil. His PTI party won municipal elections in Punjab, the most populous province, last year, a litmus test for national elections.
Why did protestors attack the military?
Tens of thousands of Khan supporters have protested in key Pakistani cities since his removal, screaming slogans against the military.
The military, a powerful force in Pakistan, has engaged in politics and even ruled the country.
Analysts believe Khan’s followers are different from earlier political leaders who challenged its power.
Syed Baqir Sajjad, a Pakistan Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, called Khan’s “garnered significant public support from the urban middle class, a group that has not traditionally been involved in challenging the military’s role in politics” unprecedented.
“This has increased pressure on the military establishment, which is feeling the heat more this time,” he added.
Khan has accused the military of collaborating with Sharif to overthrow him, even naming a top official who shot him in November.
According to Khan, his fans have taken to social media to lash out against the military.
“The intensity and consistency of Imran Khan’s attacks on the military, especially after being ousted last year, are unprecedented,” said Sajjad.
“It remains to be seen how this conflict will play out in the long term, but it is clear that the military-civilian relationship in Pakistan has always been a fragile one, with power struggles frequently erupting into open conflict.”
Khan in detention and no immediate solution make the situation heated.
Sajjad said this puts Pakistan in danger and raises concerns about “the country’s stability.”
“The military establishment getting (a state of) emergency imposed in the country and keeping former Prime Minister Imran Khan behind bars for a prolonged time is fairly high, because none of the political actors are strong enough to pose a serious challenge to Khan’s PTI in polls,” he said.
No major event is predicted to benefit the present government. Khan’s return is unsustainable for the army.
He says that such a move would have “severe consequences” for democratic institutions.
He claimed a state of emergency would undoubtedly suspend civil freedoms, crush political opposition, and limit press freedom. “This could increase unrest and instability, making it harder for Pakistan to attract foreign investment and maintain economic growth.”