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Pakistan: serious but not serious
  • Imran Ahmed Niazi Khan
    Imran Ahmed Niazi Khan
"The situation is serious but not serious", the Italian writer Ennio Flaiano would have commented about the latest developments in the never-ending soap opera that is Pakistani politics. And the latest events are no exception. Two days ago ex-premier Imran Khan, thirteen months after being defied by Parliament and removed from office, was arrested for selling, pocketing the proceeds from, gifts received in his role as prime minister and for favoring, for a hefty fee, a billionaire businessman under investigation for money laundering by British authorities. Khan was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in the offices of the Islamabad High Court, where he was to appear before the judges for another case, and taken away amid some 50 military personnel who, according to his supporters, "shoved and shoved" him. The scenes of his arrest, however spectacular, are nothing new in Pakistan: in the same manner and with the same deployment of forces, former President Asif Zardari, ex-premier Nawaz Sharif and a handful of other politicians have been arrested in the past. None of them, however, had ever recorded a video inciting their followers to take to the streets and protest. Imran did, and to call what happened 'protests' is only a pitiful understatement. The final toll is eight dead, an unspecified number of injured, one thousand six hundred people arrested in Punjab alone. All cadres of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Khan's party, were arrested for incitement to violence. The main target of the demonstrators has been the army: in Lahore, the headquarters of the Corps Commanders was ransacked, while in Rawalpindi, they managed to do the unbelievable, even entering the army headquarters. On the other hand, already in the past few months, police stations and barracks had been stormed by Imran's democratic followers who marched demanding change "through the ballot box or a bloodbath." Matter of contention was the no-confidence motion served in Parliament on Imran thirteen months ago and the call for new elections to be called with a drumbeat. At the time Khan cried conspiracy, claiming he had received evidence of an American plot to finance regime change in Pakistan: the plot was a hoax, but the no-confidence was not. Of his dismissal and the alleged plot against him, Khan blames primarily the Pakistani military. Of which, until the day before, he was the ward and puppet, and which had been instrumental in his victory in the 2018 elections. What went wrong? On the surface, it is the old Frankenstein story: the creature rebelling against its creator and the puppet who, in this case, wages a long suicidal battle against the then army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Bajwa manages to prevail, and since then Imran has not spared insinuations and accusations against him and also against the new army chief, General Asim Munir, who is guilty of supporting the incumbent government. Guilty, all of them, of obstructing the democratic process that would lead Imran to yet another victory at the polls. Beware, however. This is not about a fight for democracy or about Imran, who alone among Pakistani politicians has the courage to stand up to the army's overwhelming power: the ex-premier is more than once keen to point out his deep respect and boundless love for the institution as a whole. His problem is individuals: especially those who are said to have had a hand in the various corruption allegations against Khan and lady. Specifically, the latest target is ISI General Faisal Naseer, who allegedly twice tried to have Imran assassinated. Evidently, however, Pakistani killers are not what they used to be, as Imran is alive and well and continues to play his game while his people conjure up the ghost of Benazir Bhutto's good soul by trying to construct yet another avatar for Imran: the martyr for freedom. And yet the game, again, is rigged: because mixed in with the crowd of PTI sympathizers are circulating members, retired or on active duty, of the army and services who are inciting the crowd to storm barracks and official residences. The real battle, they say, is between two different factions in the army, one more progressive and the other more conservative. And Imran is playing on the conservative table: but the game Imran is playing with the army and the intelligence services, the same ones that almost forcefully brought him to power and effectively rule Pakistan, is complex and dangerous. Especially because it has exposed a rift within the monolithic institutions. But, since there is nothing serious about Pakistan's constitutional crises, the outcome is likely to be a comic finale: And it is even likely, they say in Pakistan, that Imran will succeed in getting early elections and, after receiving a couple of metaphorical slaps in the face, come back to win. With the blessing, once again, of the army or, at least, much of it. The strategy of chaos, in Pakistan, basically always works
Francesca Marino