Imran Khan’s arrest has exploded Pakistan’s reservoir of rage

Whether Khan wins or the establishment triumphs, Pakistan, like a snake swallowing its tail, is consuming itself.

Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan block a road as they protest against the arrest of their leader, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Pakistan braced for more turmoil a day after Khan was dragged from court in Islamabad and his supporters clashed with police across the country. The 71-year-old opposition leader is expected in court later Wednesday for a hearing on keeping Khan in custody. (AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad)
Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan block a road as they protest against the arrest of their leader, in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 [Muhammad Sajjad/AP Photo]

Hyperbole is something that comes easy to Pakistanis, especially when it comes to politics, and in the political lexicon of Pakistan, the word ‘unprecedented’ has been overused to the point of becoming meaningless. Every once in a while though, it fits.

After the dramatic arrest of wheelchair-bound former prime minister and chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Imran Khan from the premises of the Islamabad High Court by a large contingent of paramilitary troops, it was as if a reservoir of rage had burst open, spilling red onto the streets with the floodwaters inundating hitherto sacrosanct shores.

The rage isn’t new. We have seen many violent protests and will no doubt continue to see them, but the targets this time were those who have historically been off-limits to even the angriest of mobs: the symbols and strongholds of the powerful military establishment.

Protesters ransacked the official residence of the Lahore corps commander, piling his furniture onto the lawn before setting it ablaze and posting the footage on social media. Many were seen walking away with the spoils of their victory, ranging from strawberries stored in the fridge to paintings and golf clubs. One protester was even seen making off with the peacock that graced the garden. Then the entire building was set ablaze. Even more significant was a crowd, led by a sole woman, that shook the gates of the nerve centre of the military, the general headquarters in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.

Surprisingly, they met no initial resistance, leading many to wonder whether the protesters were allowed to wreak havoc in order to lay the groundwork for a wider crackdown on the party that, not too long ago, was considered to be very close to the military establishment and had been helped into power by the very forces it was now so bitterly opposed to.

It seems that many PTI leaders are aware of this and are thus taking pains to distance their party from the violence. Others, perhaps even more ominously, attribute the lack of resistance to what may be a split in the ranks of the military, though at this point there is no real evidence to support that supposition.

A more likely explanation is that authorities may have wanted to prevent a bloodbath, but in the byzantine world of Pakistani power politics, it is often impossible to tell what is shadow and what is substance. In other parts of Pakistan, public buildings, buses and toll booths were set ablaze by party supporters, and at least one school was reduced to ashes.

In many places, there were violent confrontations between protesters and security forces, with the death of several protesters and injuries on both sides now confirmed. Many of Khan’s senior colleagues in the PTI have been arrested and the crackdown appears to have intensified.

At the moment it is difficult to verify many claims given that electronic media is practically barred from displaying footage of the riots, and social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube remain blocked.

A mere two years ago, the bond between Khan’s PTI and the military establishment seemed unbreakable, much to the chagrin of his political opponents who, during his tenure, were themselves subjected to the kind of arrests and crackdowns that Khan and his party now face.

The story of Khan and the military establishment is of a once-torrid love affair gone horribly wrong, and as a 17th-century English playwright put it: ‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned.’ Somewhere along the line, there was a falling out – the exact reasons for which remain murky. In the run-up to the vote of no confidence that saw Khan unseated, it became clear that the very establishment that had propelled him into power and kept him there had withdrawn its support, leading to the defection of key allies and even some members of the PTI.

However, a dethroned Khan proved to be a tricky opponent who, after initially blaming the United States for being part of the ‘conspiracy’ to remove him from office, turned his guns onto then Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, whom he had previously taken pains to defend and extol.

From being a key partner and ally, Bajwa became a traitor and the target of the PTI’s incredibly vocal supporters, who relentlessly attacked him on social media and in public rallies, calling on all and sundry to stand with them against the establishment’s machinations.

Such a stance would be laudable if it wasn’t also rather hypocritical.

That’s because not too long ago, too many of these newly minted revolutionaries would label far milder and far more cautious critique of the military (one tries not to stick one’s neck out too far around here) as treason and would either look the other way or actually cheer when critical journalists were attacked, abducted and sometimes even shot.

Khan himself has made the jailing of his political opponents something of a policy point, calling for strict sentences for his adversaries and directing state institutions to prosecute them on sometimes flimsy charges, all with the blessings of the establishment.

Now, as is often the case in Pakistan, the roles have been reserved, and Khan himself has become another entry in the shamefully long list of sitting and former prime ministers who have found themselves out of favour and thus on the wrong side of a rather malleable judicial system.

While the case against Khan may or may not have merit – opinion is typically divided – there is little doubt that the actual reason for his incarceration is the relentless campaign he has waged against his former benefactors, a campaign that became far more pointed after the assassination attempt on him, which he openly accuses a serving major general of masterminding.

The fact is that just about every Pakistani prime minister has faced some version of this sort of victimisation at the hands of the establishment, which doesn’t like it when civilian leaders start to imagine that they actually wield power.

The tragedy is that, despite this history, those very civilian politicians eagerly wait for scraps to fall their way from their master’s table in order to taste a semblance of power and, crucially, to cut their opponents down to size. And so, what should be an opportunity for truth and reconciliation and a minimal political code of conduct simply becomes an opportunity for the victimised to become the victimiser.

That’s a script that has been played out time and again since the birth of this country. Now, we stand at a critical crossroads: Will the House win, as it almost always has in the past, or will Khan’s undeniable popularity and charisma win out? Either way, this is a war that a nearly bankrupt and deeply divided nation cannot afford. Like a snake swallowing its tail, we are consuming ourselves.

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