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Akbar Ahmed
Akbar Ahmed
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.
Imran faces his greatest test
If Imran Khan does get to lead Pakistan, he will face his greatest challenge ever, writes author.
Last Modified: 02 Jan 2012 11:24
Imran Khan's ability to meet a challenge should not be underestimated [Joe Mann/Allsport]

Washington, DC - There is a direct correlation between the depths of the gloom in Pakistan and the high expectations of salvation from Imran Khan. It is clear that the greater the despair in the country, the more fervent the hopes in one man as saviour.

If - and that is still a big if - Imran does get to lead Pakistan, he will face his greatest challenge ever. It is a challenge worthy of Hercules preparing to clean out the Augean stables. Pakistan is on the verge of imploding.

Its biggest province Baluchistan, which comprises almost half its territory, is in a state of open revolt. Baluchis complain about government's policy of "kill and dump". An entire generation of journalists and professors is being systematically killed. The Tribal Areas of the former Frontier Province is a theatre of war, involving thousands of Pakistani troops. Suicide bombers terrorise Pakistan with impunity. There is no end in sight to the violence.

The unstable situation in these two provinces of Pakistan has a direct bearing on the law and order situation in the rest of the country. No one is safe. Kidnapping and killings are commonly reported. The tensions between the military and civilian authorities are barely kept under the surface and the two are often pulling in different directions. Add to this, the woes of the ordinary Pakistani facing unemployment, high prices, shortage of electricity, gas and water who sees his rulers plundering the country and sending their ill-gotten loot abroad and you have Pakistan today.

With all its problems, the importance of Pakistan cannot be denied. It is a nation of about 180-5 million people. It has an impressive nuclear arsenal and its geo-political situation makes it a key country in the region. Most important of all, its founding father MA Jinnah created Pakistan with the idea of a genuine modern democracy in mind. He championed women's rights, minority rights, human rights and respect for the constitution.

'Wilderness years'

To many commentators waking up to Imran Khan's massive turnout in Lahore in October 2011 and then in December in Karachi, Imran appears to have suddenly arrived from nowhere. It is easy to forget that he is now almost 60 years old and has been working in the complex political arena for almost two decades. Imran's party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice), launched in 1996, has been a spectacular failure until now. So far, it has captured only one seat in Parliament - his own.

Imran's years in the wilderness may be ending. He will not be alone in history if he now succeeds in turning Pakistan round. Jinnah himself, and other world leaders like De Gaulle and Churchill, went through their "wilderness years" wondering if the public had forsaken them.

 Thousands rally for Pakistan's Imran Khan

Imran's critics threw everything at him. The affluent chattering classes in the living rooms of Karachi and Lahore resented his celebrity and dismissed him as "Moron Khan" and "Im the Dim". They felt betrayed as Imran criticised the ruling elite because he himself had been educated at the elite Aitchison College and Oxford University. His critics accused him of hypocrisy, a lecherous playboy in London and a pious Muslim in Lahore. After his marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, the press called him a Zionist agent and drew pictures of him with the Star of David on his forehead and sitting on a donkey. His marriage foundered and his party showed little promise of making a dent on Pakistan's political structure. 

But just as we must not underestimate the problems facing Pakistan, we must not underestimate Imran's capacity to meet a challenge. He took all this with stoic dignity.

Imran's fans were usually too dazzled to appreciate how he acquired his extraordinary cricketing talents. They assumed it was a God-given gift. After all, which Pakistani can forget Imran Khan holding aloft the World Cup in 1992 in Australia when Pakistan became world champion. It was an image that made every Pakistani proud to be a Pakistani.

Sustained commitment

But read his autobiographical notes to understand his mind. He put himself through a gruelling regimen to become one of the finest fast bowlers in the world. When he won the World Cup it is easy to forget that he was already 39 years old - an old age for the demanding pressures of World Cup cricket - and suffering from a ruptured shoulder cartilage. When he decided to create Pakistan's first cancer hospital, he once again exhibited sustained commitment and discipline to fundraising and completing his project.

Listen to his speeches. Compare them to his earlier ones only a few years ago. He has more focus and his punchlines make an impact. He has judged exactly what the public mood is. His own natural patriotism and passion for Pakistan have combined with his sense of disgust and outrage at Pakistan's corrupt and incompetent ruling elite and, as he sees it, their Western masters. He has courageously condemned the deaths of innocent Pakistanis resulting from the US' drone strikes. He has clearly been doing his homework.

Imran is also helped by several factors. There has been an explosion of media outlets in Pakistan. Every foible and scandal of its political leaders is now freely discussed. This freedom which borders on anarchy has shaken the confidence of the public in their leaders.

A new section of vocal urbanised middle-class Pakistanis demands to be heard. So do the young. They are looking for alternative voices to those of their present leaders. In Imran, they see a viable alternative.

"Imran's bold critique of the West appeals to Pakistanis, who are fed-up of being humiliated in public."

Imran's bold critique of the West appeals to Pakistanis, who are fed-up of being humiliated in public. Army and civilian officers, students and ordinary labourers acknowledge Imran's patriotism and courage. They compare it to their leaders like President Pervez Musharraf and President Asif Ali Zardari. Musharraf jumped one foot off the ground every time someone from Washington rang to say "boo". Zardari simply takes off from Pakistan whenever he faces a problem - he was sightseeing in Europe when the floods devastated Pakistan and disappeared to the UAE during the Memogate crisis.

Challenges for Imran

If Imran is given power, he needs to immediately tackle the question of law and order in Pakistan. He must order the cessation of the torture and killings in Baluchistan. He must fly to the Province to apologise for what Pakistan has done to its people. He must do everything possible to reinforce the idea that Baluchistan - like the Tribal Areas - is a respected part of the federation of Pakistan. Imran's Pushtun background will help in these provinces where people constantly and openly complain about excessive Punjabi domination.

Imran needs to begin working even before he takes over on strengthening the judicial and civil administrative structures. These have been destroyed over the last few years. Without them ordinary Pakistanis will not be able to obtain proper justice.

Pakistanis must see the benefits of Imran's administration if they are to believe in him. This means jobs, bringing down of the prices of everyday requirements like wheat and cooking oil, availability of electricity and gas.

Apart from internal problems, Pakistan faces challenges in its foreign policy. Its relations with its neighbours, Afghanistan and India, need to be improved. The recent spiralling downward of the relationship between the US and Pakistan should be a cause of worry to both. It is in the interest of both countries to have a stable and long-term relationship based in mutual understanding.

The last may prove a particular challenge for Imran. There are high levels of almost irrational anti-American feelings in Pakistan today. Pakistanis blame the deadly actions of the suicide bombers and the drone strikes for the 40-50,000 Pakistanis that have lost their lives in a war that is not of their making.  Imran's own rhetoric will easily be mistranslated and misunderstood in Washington to mean that he supports the Taliban and therefore "Islamic terrorism". Imran cannot afford to ignore this area of vital interest for Pakistan's foreign relations.

After a decade as ally in the US' "War on Terror" and the devastating social, political and economic impact which direction will Imran take Pakistan?

The hopes of a nation now rest on one man. Pakistan history is replete with examples of Pakistanis depending entirely on the saviour figure only to be disappointed afterwards. Even Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who remains so revered in Pakistan, died one year after creating the country. Imran must emphasise the creation - in some case the re-creation of structures and systems.

There are already danger-signs as some old faces who have done the rounds with different parties have now jumped onto Imran's bandwagon. The balance between making deals in order to chip away at the power base of the ruling Zardari-Bhutto dynasty and the Sharif one, and maintaining his integrity will be crucial.

He will not have much time in office. The clock will be ticking. Another Oxford graduate like him, freshly out of university, will emerge to challenge him. Bilawal Bhutto may be completely untutored at the moment, but as the head of the PPP and the son and grand-son of two former popular prime ministers of Pakistan, he will soon have legitimacy to begin his attacks. Imran needs to be ready for his finest innings.

Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic studies, American University, Washington DC and author of Journey into America (Brookings Press 2010). He was Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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