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Pakistani government is a civilian facade used to conceal iron fist of the army

The fact that a small protest not only continued in Islamabad but spread to Lahore and Karachi suggests it had military support. Otherwise it would have ended earlier without embarrassing the civilian government

opinion Updated: Nov 30, 2017 19:51 IST
Pakistan,Afghanistan,Shaid Khaqan Abbasi
A police prison van, destroyed during clashes, is cleared from the road a day after the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan called off nationwide protests, Islamabad, Pakistan, November 28, 2017(REUTERS)

After its restoration in 2008, Pakistan’s democracy is best described as a hybrid creature. While the prime minister and his Cabinet are the visible façade, the inner core of power lies with the army chief. So not just defence matters but also critical foreign policy concerns like relations with the US, Afghanistan, India and China are decided at General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and not the prime minister’s office in Islamabad. This has been the established ‘power-sharing’ for the last nine years.

Last week, however, the army bared its teeth more visibly and significantly altered the balance. It openly defied civilian authority, equated the elected government with unruly protestors and made clear to the country who is in actual control. Consequently, civilian politicians who earlier seemed like puppets have been reduced to players in a pantomime.

This happened when Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s government, after 20 days of dithering, decided to get tough with some 3,000 protestors from the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, a fundamentalist Barelvi group protesting against a change in the parliamentary oath of office. Demanding the resignation of the law minister, Zahid Hamid, who they blamed for the change, they blockaded the capital. As their protest spread to Karachi and Lahore the government was forced to close private television channels, shut down Twitter, Facebook and Youtube and put schools on holiday. Soon a sense of chaos and crisis seemed to prevail across the country.

Finally on Saturday the government sent in 8,000 policemen to clear the protestors. But it was a poorly conducted operation and spectacularly failed. Faced with this debacle and its credibility damaged, the government decided to call-in the army. This is when the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, made his move.

He refused to heed Abbasi’s call. General Bajwa is reported to have said: “force could not be applied against (our) own people as the people of Pakistan love and trust (the) army, which cannot be compromised for little gains.” Worse still, General Bajwa, equating the government with the protestors, said violence must be avoided “by both sides”. “It’s not in national interest”, he added. Instead, he told the government to “handle the dharna peacefully”.

This was a huge slap on the civilian government’s face. Social media was quick to pick it up and criticise it, but that didn’t change the situation. The army chief stuck to his refusal and the government seemed helpless.

Thus stymied, the government was forced to accept the mediation of the army’s intelligence wing. The task was undertaken by a major general of the ISI. The result was the law minister’s resignation and the complete capitulation of the civilian government. The army-brokered agreement concludes: “we are thankful to him (Bajwa) for saving the nation from a big catastrophe”.

Once again social media questioned and challenged the army’s behaviour and, once again, was ignored. Then, on Monday, a judge of the Islamabad High Court spoke out. “Under which law (does) the army play the role of mediator?” asked Justice Siddiqui. “How can the army meddle in politics?”

How indeed? But who in Pakistan will answer that question? Not the civilian government, whose authority has collapsed, nor civil society, whose voice may tweet but is ignored. General Bajwa knows that for 70 years his country has never stood up to the army. What are the chances it will do so now?

Recent history suggests the answer is bound to be no. The Imran Khan-Tahirul Qadri protest of 2014 was widely believed to have the army’s support. It was intended to put pressure on Nawaz Sharif’s new government and a better way of dismissing it than an outright coup. In the end Washington prevailed upon then army chief General Raheel Sharif to show prudence.

The fact this time a much smaller protest has not only continued in Islamabad but spread to Lahore and Karachi suggests it had military support. Otherwise it would have ended earlier without embarrassing the government.

One obvious conclusion emerges: The Pakistan army will not topple elected governments because it doesn’t need to; instead, it will embarrass and restrict their powers. This civilian façade is the velvet glove it needs to cover its iron fist.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 30, 2017 19:51 IST