Pakistan’s urban areas have been swept by protests following the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan on 9 May. Khan has since been released on bail. However, the violent protests against the military establishment revealed not only Khan’s moral grip on the nation, but also the mass dissatisfaction with the country’s economic outlook.
While many protesters support Khan’s anti-elite stance, on-the-ground policy experts are skeptical of his potential to bring about meaningful change. This is because Khan himself is a product of the very system he rails against, and his policies and rhetoric often ignore marginalised identities.
Anti-military sentiment and the Imran Khan effect
The mass outrage following Khan’s arrest has led to extraordinary displays of protest. Masses have stormed military compounds and set ablaze residences belonging to army members. These actions show that people are confronting an ordinarily untouchable entity at the highest echelons of authority in Pakistan.
Rioters supporting Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), launched several attacks on the day, with a focus on military installations. Chief minister Mohsin Naqvi told national news outlet Dawn that among the targets of the arson attacks were the Corps Commander’s House, Askari Bank, and Askari Tower. Rioters also targeted ambulances, fire brigades, and police vehicles.
Khan’s populist values and anti-elite stance have struck a chord with Pakistan’s increasingly disillusioned middle class. This should come as no surprise given the country’s inflation rate at a staggering 36.4%, high unemployment, soaring cost of living — pricing out even skilled and white collar workers — along with a history of military interference in politics and governance.
Protest, anti-military sentiment, and political discontent are indeed cornerstones of revolution and resistance movements. But in this specific case, it’s important that we don’t conflate real systemic change and progress with the treatment of one singular individual.
It’s not the people’s struggles and the people’s marginalisation that emerge at the centre of this narrative. It’s the mass obsession with Imran Khan’s never-ending grievances that mobilises these crowds. These grievances include claims that anyone who opposes Khan is a liar, a foreign agent, or guilty of corruption and stealing from the country.
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Which begs the question: why? He’s just a retired cricket star, right?
The army’s golden goose, the people’s messiah
According to Ali Usman Qasmi, assistant professor of history at the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences, Khan’s supporters fall under the professional and middle classes that value merit and a strong work ethic. So it made sense that Khan’s talking points railing against Pakistan’s long-entrenched political dynasties resonated with them.
But it’s also disappointing that Khan himself is a product of the very system he rails against.
As a cricket star, philanthropist, and devout Muslim, Khan was the army’s golden goose. Particularly as he came into power after two failed election cycles, on the heels of a nine-year military dictatorship.
To once again echo Qasmi’s thinking, Khan emulated the ideal trifecta of popularity, hope, and religiosity. This allowed him to become the face of the army’s desired brand of Pakistani nationalism. As Khan ascended to power, this symbiotic dynamic meant that if the people love Imran Khan, and he loves the army, then by extension the army maintains their elusive foothold amid Khan’s constituency.
But the past year has been a whirlwind drama that’s included a no-confidence vote, alleged assassination attempt, sedition charges, and more. Now, Qasmi says the army “risks losing legitimacy if it attempts to crack down on him, but also risks losing control if they allow him to continue.”
Although the masses are still protesting against the military, and rallying to reinstate Imran Khan or bring justice to his vision of a “new” Pakistan, critics suggest it’s unlikely that Khan will be the saviour they seek.
Using populist discourse
Zarnaab Adil Janjua, a policy analyst and consultant, is cynical of Khan’s supposed disruption of the status quo. He told the Canary:
[Imran Khan] is far from someone who brings class realities to the surface. His policies favouring real estate magnates and granting amnesty schemes to tax evaders is evidence of this oversight.
In a similar vein, Alia Amirali, a left political worker for the Awami Workers’ Party, explained to the Canary that:
Imran Khan doesn’t use working class rhetoric or language. He uses populist discourse. His main narrative has been around corruption and in recent years around Islam and the need to enforce ‘truly’ Islamic principles.
Amirali says that his narrative has consistently been about weeding out bad apples in government, as opposed to critically evaluating the system as a whole. She elaborates:
He positions himself as the only person supposedly capable of enacting reform —because he is ‘good’ and anyone in opposition to him is ‘bad’.
She further believes that the mobilising PTI phenomenon is not as universal as people tend to assume. Moreover, it primarily caters to young urban people who don’t see a future for themselves in the country. Meanwhile it excludes populations in the rural, ethnic, and religious peripheries.
Ignoring marginalised identities
While these protests are certainly indicative of emerging social changes in Pakistani urban areas and the class dynamics at play, the undercurrent of anger at the country’s systemic issues is nothing new.
Janjua echoes these beliefs:
Baloch and Pashtun leaders have paid far higher prices for espousing [anti-military] sentiment. It is tragic and perhaps emblematic of Pakistan’s woes that it took an elite Punjabi politician who has been insulated from the military’s missteps for most of his life to get this out in the open.
Moreover, Amirali is uncertain that the women protesting in support of Khan would be celebrated if they were protesting for gender-based equality or other malaises within the patriarchal system. In fact, she notes that it has primarily been Baloch women who have been leading the recovery of Baloch Missing Persons. They have walked all the way from Balochistan to Islamabad in protest– much like Imran Khan’s Long Marches. Yet their causes and struggles have been invisible.
If anything, the current political upheaval reveals contradictions in the corridors of power. This is because Khan’s policies and rhetoric seem to cater to a specific demographic, while ignoring marginalised identities. Meanwhile, the emerging social changes in Pakistani urban areas reveal complex class dynamics that Khan’s populist discourse does not fully address.
Imran Khan and the army: familiar bedfellows
The ongoing political protests are certainly indicative of emerging social changes in Pakistani urban areas. For one, Khan has successfully mainstreamed the people’s frustration with consistent military interference in governance. Moreover, frustration with dynastic political power concentrated in elite families like the Bhuttos and Sharifs has never been more rife.
However, it’s unlikely that Imran Khan is the best candidate to address the undercurrent of anger at the country’s systemic issues.
As a product of the same system he criticises, as well as his history with appealing to the army to accelerate his political career, there’s nothing to suggest he wouldn’t cozy up with the military and the elite class again. Especially if it meant charting a path back into office.
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