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Destabilizing the Sharifs

What’s Going On in Pakistan?

by TARIQ ALI

A trip through the dark corridors and political galleries suggests that what we are witnessing in Pakistan today – street demos in Lahore and Islamabad, attempts to seize the prime minister’s house, a token occupation of the state television building – is little more than a crude struggle for power between the incumbents (the two stooges otherwise known as the Sharif brothers) and a segment of the opposition led by Imran Khan and the forces unleashed by the Canadian-based ‘moderate’ Islamist cleric Tahirul Qadri, who controls a large network of madrassahs that were supported by the Sharifs and many others. Mohammad Sarwar, for instance, the governor of Punjab (a millionaire chum of Blair and Brown and former New Labour MP from Glasgow), joined Qadri’s procession, presumably to demonstrate his faith.

Qadri says that democracy has failed the country and cannot deliver the reforms necessary to alleviate the suffering of the majority. He is opposed to violence and insists that his group was not in favour of his temporary partner’s tactics. While Khan’s followers stormed the Red Zone, Qadri stayed away and drizzled. His own politics are mysterious. The only serious alternative to actually existing democracy is the army, which in the decades that it ruled Pakistan was also incapable of any real reforms that benefited the poor or middle layers of society. And being a moderate, Qadri is certainly not in favour of a caliphate. At least, not yet.

Khan alleges that the polls were so heavily rigged in last year’s general election as to deny him victory. That polls in Pakistan are often rigged is beyond dispute – but to what extent? The defeated Pakistan People’s (in reality Zardari-Bhutto’s) Party made no such charge, despite being virtually wiped out in Punjab. Khan, too, accepted the results at the time and was photographed smiling with the new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. More to the point, his party agreed to form the government in the frontier province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. If the election had been rigged so extensively, why not bide your time, become Leader of the Opposition and fight in parliament instead of forming a provincial government composed of the usual coterie of bandwagon careerists? Those (including me) who had thought that Khan’s new movement might create a political space for something better have been proved wrong. He is demanding the Sharif brothers resign with immediate effect and new elections be organised.

After their electoral triumph, the Sharif brothers behaved in the same old way as before, announcing fancy projects (with fancy contracts attached) that had little to do with the real state of the country: power cuts worse than before; the price of basic commodities spiralling upwards; religious violence; terror attacks, including one on Karachi Airport in which some poor, privatised security guards who had taken shelter in the airport’s huge freezer were burned to death. The Sharifs’ unpopularity grew rapidly.

Sulking in his tent, the frustrated, untutored, impulsive Imran Khan felt that he could and would have done better had he not been cheated at the polls. He convinced himself that he had actually won and that the Sharifs had to go. If the record of his government in KP is anything to go by, it’s doubtful that he would have done any better on a national scale. But no serious observer of Pakistan politics (including severe critics of the existing order) believes that the elections were that heavily rigged. The Sharif brothers (especially Shahbaz, who runs the Punjab) are masters of guile backed up, when necessary, with plump envelopes stuffed with money. But like it or not, they won the elections, which is why the Baluch parties, the PPP and the Jamaat-i-Islami have not joined the campaign to dethrone them.

Pakistan’s politicians never seem to have understood that the army is the crucial player in the country. This has been true since the state’s creation. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto overestimated his power base, made one mistake too many and was hanged by the generals. Nawaz Sharif imagined that with his overwhelming electoral triumph and the enthusiastic backing of Riyadh (on whose oil both the country and the military are heavily dependent) he was untouchable. He wanted to make an example of General Pervez Musharraf, who had toppled the last Sharif government in a coup in 1999, by trying him for high treason in the Supreme Court and having him hanged or locked up indefinitely. The army high command was livid. Six months ago [OK?] the current chief of staff, General Raheel Sharif, called Nawaz in and asked him to desist. Evidently he agreed to drop the charges against Musharraf and told the army chief that his predecessor was free to leave the country.

Outside GHQ, back in the sunlight, the prime minister’s colleagues told him he had made a mistake. The deal was off. The corps commanders were enraged. Heads had to roll. At the same time, the head of the country’s most popular and efficient news channel, Geo TV, said that a recent attempt on the life of one of their leading investigative journalists had been carried out by the ISI, and named the general in charge of that body as the assassin-in-chief. There was mayhem at GHQ. Nobody in the media had ever treated the army in such a cavalier fashion. The regulatory body was pushed to take Geo off the air. This incident, too, became part of the indictment against the Sharif brothers.

So the movement launched by Khan and Qadri is seen by many as being orchestrated by the secret state, its aim to destabilise the Sharifs and force them to resign. Khan’s outburst against the Saudis for ‘interfering in Pakistani politics’ was a result of Riyadh’s open hostility to any attempt to remove Sharif. The corps commanders held a meeting yesterday to discuss the political crisis and made it clear that the army has no plans to take control beyond what they control already – defence and foreign policy. The brothers have been weakened but are the wounds fatal? The protesting crowds are small for Pakistan. Tens of thousands, nowhere near the million-strong march that had been predicted. The people let Khan down badly and that can’t be ascribed to rigging – or can it?

The army would like to punish the Sharifs for their impertinence and would like to see the back of them, but the Saudis might stop the oil subsidies. Even were the Sharifs to resign voluntarily, it is unlikely that Khan would be appointed head of a caretaker government. Some technocrat would be found to prepare the next election and inflate his own bank account. Every scenario has been tried and failed.

Tariq Ali is the author of  The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

This essay originally appeared in the London Review of Books.