Itmran Khan has been dialing up the invective since even before his ouster as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in a parliamentary no-confidence vote on Apr. 9. Khan used the opportunity to stage mass protests against his political enemies, who he said were behind a U.S.-backed coup attempt to unseat him, in the weeks that followed. The violence has only increased as Khan, a cricketing legend, turned his anger against the military establishment which helped his rise to political power before abandoning him.
Police charged Khan Sunday under Anti-Terror Legislation for a speech Khan gave Saturday in Islamabad. Khan vowed that he would sue officers and a female judge regarding the arrest and torture of his close aide.
Khan has not been arrested yet and Khan’s supporters are threatening to organize mass demonstrations in the event that he is taken into custody. “If Khan is actually arrested, all bets would be off and the country could see heightened risks of political violence in major cities,” says Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Khan enjoys backing from a rabid support base that would not sit quietly.”
The controversy centers around Shahbaz Gill, a former Cabinet minister and special assistant to Khan, who earlier this month urged soldiers to disobey “illegal orders” from their military leaders in a televised address. Gill was charged with sedition—a crime which carries the death penalty—and claims he was tortured under interrogation. One senior PTI official provided photographs of the bruises Gill may have sustained during his detention. TIME could not independently confirm these photos.
Khan came to the defense of his friend by criticizing the inspector-general of Pakistan’s police force and the judge deemed responsible for Gill’s arrest. “You also get ready for it, we will also take action against you,” Khan reportedly said. “All of you must be ashamed.”
Pakistan’s judiciary subsequently deemed those comments—and threats to sue the police and the judge—an explicit threat and filed charges against him. However, the Islamabad High Court granted Khan “protective bail” until Thursday, which blocks his potential arrest for now.
In any case, Khan’s speeches have been banned from live satellite television broadcasts inside Pakistan after the national regulator accused him of leveling “baseless allegations” against the state and “spreading hate speech.” The order has been met with pushback from across the political divide. “Banishing completely a political leader from the media is not the best policy,” tweetedFarhatullah Babar, a former Pakistani senator and member of the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party. “It risks making someone bigger than life unwittingly and undeservingly.”
It’s also not clear how effective such a ban would be. Khan is followed by more than 17 million people on Twitter. This number surpasses the audience of most top-rated nightly news channels in Pakistan. Access to YouTube in Pakistan was blocked on Sunday in an apparent effort to limit a speech Khan was giving in Rawalpindi, the north.
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Certainly, Khan’s predicament is only the latest salvo as nuclear-armed Pakistan lurches from crisis to crisis, with potentially grave implications for regional and global security. In addition to a highly polarized political climate, Khan’s nation of 230m people is plagued by an inflation rate of 24.9% in July. The government has also been incapable of improving the economy and rough dealing with its opponents. August 29th will see the IMF meet again to seek another bailout. However, the possibility of unrest political risks tripping over an already fragile economic situation. “No matter how you slice it, it’s a very uneasy and volatile moment for Pakistan,” says Kugelman.
Is Pakistan’s military getting ready to act?
Even though the relations are sometimes strained, Pakistan remains an essential security partner of the U.S. with Afghanistan. There, the Taliban were back in power for over a year.
Instability gripping Pakistan—including rumors of splits between pro- and anti-Khan factions in the military—undermines this invaluable security apparatus. On Aug. 10, the Pakistani Taliban claimed it had regained control of a part of Swat district in the country’s far north. It’s a precarious time for Pakistan’s military to be divided and distracted.
For Samina Yasmeen, director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, the new government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif of the center-right PML-N party—brother of Khan’s longtime nemesis Nawaz Sharif—has made the mistake of allowing Khan to “whip up hysteria” but now faces “even more instability” by clumsily cracking down. “It’s not simply the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear state,” she says. “It’s that this state has a lotIt has a lot of people. If there are clashes, then you really don’t know where it’s going to go.”
Khan’s anti-U.S. rants have been toned down over recent weeks. He may be open to building relations with Washington, should he manage to bring about a miracle recovery to power. Instead, he’s dialed up attacks against the military, which he sardonically dubbed “neutrals” in response to statements from brass hats insisting they don’t meddle in politics. So even figures from the ruling PMLN now use the phrase, stressing the fact the generals who ruled Pakistan over half of its 75-year history are still the kingmakers.
The charges against Khan have in particular galvanized his supporters’ enmity against Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who they believe was a big driver of the 69-year-old Khan’s ouster. “Bajwa’s transformation in the eyes of Khan’s supporters from revered to reviled … is one of the most striking takeaways from this ongoing saga,” says Kugelman.
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The reality is, of course, that Khan’s path to power was possible because the military backed him and then he lost power when they withdrew their support. All across politics, Khan’s reputation as a general has been tarnished. The overwhelming response on social media to the death of six top army officers, including one general, in an air crash early in August was not sympathetic. Many mockingly expressed condolences instead of expressing sympathy for those who lost their lives.
Pakistani society is rarely so divided, with Khan being viewed by half of the population as a hero and Khan the Devil incarnate. “Effectively, what he’s done is divided the country,” says Yasmeen. “It’s very much like Trump [in the U.S.]. And if the United States hasn’t fully recovered yet, how can a country like Pakistan recover?”
It is not clear whether generals will be able to stand by if protests spread amid an economic disaster. Pakistan’s military has willingly seized power when they thought things were spiraling out of control, most recently in 1999. However, the generals discovered that they were more comfortable pulling the strings out of the shadows. It is not clear if this opinion has changed. “I can’t see the military taking over,” says Yasmeen, “But then part of me thinks, it’s gone so bad, could there be some [in the army] who think it would be the right thing?”
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