Pakistan in turmoil
Unleashing the mob
Sep 1st 2014, 12:34 by A.R. | DELHI
BACK in the days before social media, mobile phones and private television, the surest way of signalling that you had seized political power was to take control of the state broadcaster. That is what the army did in October 1999, when it forced out an elected government led by Nawaz Sharif. Almost 15 years later, on September 1st protesters in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, have done just the same thing: storming the offices of Pakistan Television (PTV) and taking it off the air for 45 minutes before army rangers reasserted control. The thuggish attack, apparently by supporters of a rabble-rousing, pro-army cleric, Tahir ul Qadri, followed a weekend of mayhem in the capital.
For days it has looked as if Pakistan were teetering on the verge of something like another coup, or at least the explicit reassertion of military control over civilian rulers. Unrest persists in Islamabad where for weeks protesters have gathered and demanded the resignation of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister who was most recently elected with a large mandate, in a free election, last year. Along with Mr Qadri is a former playboy cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, who came third in last year’s elections. He claims, with evidence that is somewhere between flimsy and non-existent, that polls were rigged to favour the then-opposition leader, Mr Sharif; Mr Khan wants them all re-run.
He and Mr Qadri called on their respective supporters, many armed with long sticks—and, according to some reports, also knives, axes and other weapons—to storm the prime minister’s home late on August 30th. That was a deeply cynical act on several scores. The two demagogues must have known that violence would follow, and almost certainly deaths too, but they must have calculated that by inflaming matters further they might provoke the fall of Mr Sharif. In fact several dozen people were badly injured and at least two died in clashes with the (civilian-led) police. Despite pledging to lead the mob, both leaders melted away. They must be betting that the longer they press for rule at the behest of a tiny minority—their noisy tens of thousands of protesters, of a population of some 180m Pakistani citizens—on the street, the greater the sway that the army will gain over elected politicians. Late in the afternoon of September 1st charges of terrorism were lodged against both populist leaders, according to Dawn newspaper.
It has become hard to imagine that Mr Khan and Mr Qadri have any other intention than to strengthen the hand of the army over the civilians. Mr Khan has set up a series of stunts to provoke an outright crisis: he ordered his party’s MPs to resign from parliament in August (though he did not think it worthwhile to remove his party from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where they hold a majority). He has failed to make a convincing case either that Mr Sharif is so corrupt, or that somehow he came to office by illegitimate means, that a frenzied attack by thousands of street protesters could serve as a legitimate substitute for lawful, constitutional change. And it is close to certain that he—and Mr Qadri—have the backing of Pakistan’s army. Mass protests, and the attacks on state television, would be impossible to sustain if the army came out clearly against them.
One theory doing the rounds since late last week is that Mr Sharif has already agreed with army chiefs that he will cede control of foreign and security policy to them, in order to remain in office. Many well-informed Pakistani observers are already saying that Mr Sharif has already, in effect, lost power. It is unclear, however, if that is true. Mr Sharif is a defiant leader who has been the victim of a coup before, when Pervez Musharraf overthrew him in 1999 and became the most recent in a long line of military dictators to rule Pakistan. Mr Sharif may determine that he would be better off to be blatantly turfed from office again, rather than forced into some sort of power-sharing deal. An outright coup would—rightly—provoke international condemnation, and cut off American and European military aid, among other funds. It would also make clear, again, that sustained civilian rule has never been tolerated by Pakistan’s power-hungry army. With bitter irony, the reminder comes barely a year after general celebrations over the fact that Pakistan had for the first time achieved the transfer of power between two civilian, elected, administrations.
Indeed, Mr Sharif has for some time looked willing to endure outright confrontation with the army. He has ensured that Mr Musharraf faces the rule of law, as he is tried for treason, despite military chiefs believing that their man should instead be allowed to flee the country. Mr Sharif has also attempted to reach out to India for peace talks and to restart trade, both of which the army opposes. It is unclear why, now, he would agree to remain in office with no powers, after months of refusing to accommodate the wishes of the army.
The latest confrontation, instead, should be a moment for Pakistanis, as well as foreign donors and friends, to rethink the role of the army. It claims to be a source of stability for the country. It battles Islamist extremists, is engaged in a campaign for control of North Waziristan and has long assumed the role of guarantor of stability in Pakistan—for example, against theoretical aggression from India. Yet over time it has proved to be the cause of immense pain and instability. Its past is riddled with destructive acts. For half of Pakistan’s existence it preserved outright control over politics and for much of the rest of its time it has sought to manipulate politics from afar. The army eats the lion’s share of the country’s public spending; it involved itself in a near-genocide that led to the secession of Bangladesh; and deployed its spy service to usurp elections, murder journalists and collude with Islamist extremists. It quite probably provided shelter to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s leader, and has been an active force in destabilising Afghanistan. It also remains the single-greatest obstacle to a peace deal with India. If it should now be barging its way back to outright control of politics—aided by the work of Mr Khan and Mr Qadri—that is something for Pakistanis and the rest of the world to lament.