Last June, Pakistan celebrated the first democratic handover of power in its nearly seventy-year history, as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office. Just over a year later, huge crowds of protesters — led by a cleric and a former cricket star — are trying to force Sharif’s resignation, leaving the Pakistani Army in a place they’ve been many times over the decades: poised to gain in what observers have called a ‘soft coup.’
Pakistan’s parliament met in a joint session on Tuesday to address the group of demonstrators at their gates, who since August 15 have demanded they step down. Over the past few days, the confrontations between the police protecting parliament and other government buildings in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, and the protesters have turned violent, leaving the lawmakers and cabinet to try to rectify the situation.
“This is not a protest, a sit-in or a political gathering. This is a rebellion. It is a rebellion against state institutions. It is a rebellion against the state of Pakistan,” Pakistani interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, told the gathered lawmakers. “Clear guidance from this parliament would give strength to the police … They are not revolutionaries, they are intruders and terrorists,” he added.
CREDIT: AP Photo/B.K. Bangash
There are now actually two groups of protesters on the ground in Islamabad protesting against Sharif’s PML-N government. One group, aligned with the Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI), is rallying behind cricket player cum politician Imran Khan. Khan believes that last year’s elections were rigged against him and is calling for Sharif to step down and allow a new vote to take place. The other group, marshaled through the efforts of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), is there in support of cleric Tahir ul Qadri. Unlike Sharif, Qadri wants a clean-sweep of the current system of government in Pakistan, getting rid of the political class entirely and replacing it with a group of technocrats.
Despite their different goals, the two sides are united in their disdain for Sharif and his government. Also sticking in their craw is Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, and his position as the head of Pakistan’s Punjab state. Shabaz’s resignation has also been a demand from the protesters, as in June Punjai police killed at least seven people during an altercation between them and Qadri’s followers, an incident that first launched the current political strife in the capital.
CREDIT: AP Photo/B.K. Bangash
CREDIT: AP Photo/B.K. Bangash
So far Sharif and his ministers have resisted the calls for his political head. That resistance has come, though, as the tensions between the government and police and the demonstrators aligned with Qadri and Khan finally reached a breaking point. Three protesters died and more than 500 were injured in clashes where the police broke out tear gas, batons, and rubber bullets to prevent the gathered civilians from storming the prime minister’s house.
Protesters have been formidable in their own right, as encapsulated in images that have swept the world of civilians beating a policeman who had fallen before them. On Monday, the gathered group managed to briefly seize control of the government-run television station, forcing it off the air as the police — under orders to not use force against them — were unable to stop them. It took members of the military asking the protesters to leave to end the stand-off, a sign of the respect that all sides show the Pakistani Army.
That incident came after demonstrators also attempted to storm the Prime Minister’s residence on Saturday. Khan’s choice to move against Sharif’s house rankled PTI leader Javed Hashmi, who on Monday “said his leader had told him he was coordinating anti-government protests with the army and that there would be fresh elections later in September, secured with the help of a friendly member of the country’s Supreme Court.” Speaking outside of the parliament building, Hashmi said, “Imran Khan said we can’t move forward without the army… Imran Khan also said that all the matters had been decided and there will be elections in September,” adding “It won’t be called martial law… we will file a petition in the Supreme Court and get a judge of our choosing and he will say OK, they will get rid of the government.”
CREDIT: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed
Both Khan and the military strongly denied Hashmi’s claims. “Army is an apolitical institution and has expressed its unequivocal support for democracy at numerous occasions. It is unfortunate that Army is dragged into such controversies,” the military said in a statement. But the Pakistani Army definitely stands to gain from Sharif’s current political weakness.
Last week, the Army was reportedly nearing a deal with Sharif that would ensure that it sided with him and ensured he remains in power — at least in name. “Government aides said the military has seized on Mr. Sharif’s weakened status during the political crisis to strike a deal in which he would leave strategic policy areas—including relations with the U.S., Afghanistan and India—to be controlled by the armed forces,” the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. The Army is also reportedly asking for former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf — who led the 1999 that deposed Sharif during his first stint as prime minister — to see the treason charges he is currently being held on dropped.
Though there was no violence between protesters and police on most of Tuesday, the situation is far from being solved. Pakistan’s Supreme Court is attempting to determine what role it can play as an arbiter between the sides, but given the political nature of the conflict, it’s not likely to provide many results. As the stand-off between Khan and Qadri on one-side and Sharif on the other continues, the Pakistani Army continues to play the part it has played since Pakistan’s independence: a supposedly neutral party, a place for the country to turn when tired of the selfish nature of politicians.