At dusk on 9 May, small groups of demonstrators, both men and women, converged on the Sharhah-e-Faisal freeway, the main artery of the economic and financial capital Karachi. Some had bamboo canes and seemed fired up for a clash with police; others had brought their families. That morning, former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan had been arrested in Islamabad on corruption charges, bringing his supporters onto the streets, with violence breaking out in major cities across the country. Protesters in Karachi said they were sickened by what they saw as a conspiracy against the only man who could put the country back on its feet and end corruption.
Between salvoes of tear gas, supporters of Khan’s party, Tehrik-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice, PTI), shouted anti-army slogans that left no doubt as to their views: ‘The real terrorists are the ones in uniform!’ The most determined protesters planned to attack the local army corps commander’s residence, a symbol of military power.
Though the police were able to stop that attack, things went differently in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and wealthiest province and the army’s main recruiting ground. In Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s fourth-largest city, PTI supporters attacked the army headquarters; in Lahore, they vandalised the army corps commander’s residence and set it on fire. The censors banned Pakistani TV channels from showing the riots, but footage was widely shared on social media before being blocked.
Crisis strengthens the army
Never in Pakistan’s turbulent history had the army been targeted so directly, and in the next few days there was widespread fear of escalation. Khan is thought still to have supporters in the army, and rumours of mutiny spread, feeding fears of civil war. The world’s fifth most populous country and only Muslim state with nuclear weapons seemed on the edge of the abyss.
Though the May crisis shook the army, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, it ultimately strengthened its grip on the country. Over the following months, the police conducted raids against PTI leaders. Those who refused to break with Khan were imprisoned. The cricketer turned politician was released on bail, then arrested again on 5 August, found guilty of selling state gifts for personal profit and jailed for three years. He has been barred from public office for five years and can’t stand in the next general election, despite being the country’s most popular politician. His trials for further offences continue.
In securing a hold on the economy (whereas from the 1980s it had focused on diplomacy and strategic affairs), the army is protecting its own interests: it now rules a huge and growing financial empire
The election, scheduled for this November, has been postponed until late January 2024. The National Assembly was dissolved within the normal time limit and an interim government sworn in on 17 August, replacing Shehbaz Sharif’s, in office since April 2022. However, the Electoral Commission then began redrawing hundreds of constituency boundaries, which was used to justify delaying the election by several months – enough time for the army to negotiate an end to the crisis with the PTI. One milestone in the negotiations may be the return to Pakistan, after four years in voluntary exile, of Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister and elder brother of outgoing prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, whose relations with the army are poor.
This shakeup gives a sense of déjà vu. Since General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq ousted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977, three prime ministers – Benazir Bhutto (1988-90, 1993-96), Nawaz Sharif (intermittently 1990-2017) and Khan (2018-22) – have tried to rein in the army. Believing they had popular support, they have tried to fight the state apparatus (army, military intelligence and judiciary). All have lost, ending up in prison or exile and banned from political office.
In every case, the conflict has centred on the appointments of the army chief of staff and the head of the powerful military intelligence service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Khan was no exception. His repeated attempts to impose army officers reputedly close to him led to his downfall, cemented by a National Assembly vote of no confidence in April 2022.
As usual, this led to a bout of horse-trading by the ‘deep state’ (the army and ISI) with a view to forming a new loyalist coalition. Since its foundation by former protégés of Zia in 1993, including Nawaz Sharif himself, the faction of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) headed by the Sharif clan has regularly done such deals with the military – though its leaders have not escaped retribution when they have tried to fly solo.
The opportunism of the dominant political parties, which plays into the military’s hands, has been evident in the latest crisis. The army was shaken by the violent demonstrations after Khan’s arrest in May. The governing coalition, led by the PML-N, could have turned this to its advantage but didn’t: it gave the army its full support, with carte blanche to expunge the insult to its honour. Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif approved the arraignment before military tribunals of a hundred or so civilians allegedly involved in the riots. The last days of his government also saw new legislation strengthening ISI’s powers and criminalising any attack on the army’s infrastructure and interests, or even its image.
Amendments to the 1952 Pakistan Army Act passed by the Senate on 27 July prescribe up to five years’ prison for disclosing information prejudicial to Pakistan’s security and interests or those of its armed forces – a measure designed to deter potential whistleblowers from reporting corruption.
Under the ‘hybrid regime’ of recent years, the army was content to wield influence from behind the scenes. Today, army chief of staff General Asim Munir is not afraid to show that he is in sole charge of Pakistan’s politics and economy. He intervenes directly in monetary policy, is leading a crackdown on speculation, smuggling and electricity theft, and has told business leaders he hopes to attract $100bn in foreign investment, mainly from the Gulf.
Taking on economic management
With the army in charge of Pakistan’s economy and finances, all important decisions in these domains must be approved by the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC), which is controlled by the army. The SIFC has supplanted federal agencies and provincial authorities, reversing the regionalisation process that began in 2010. Formalising the army’s role in making economic policy encourages its tendency to grab water and mineral resources and take control of parts of the energy and artificial intelligence sectors.
In securing a hold on the economy (whereas from the 1980s it had focused on diplomacy and strategic affairs), the army is protecting its own interests: it now rules a huge and growing financial empire. On the pretext of rewarding deserving officers, it appropriates agricultural and urban land, deriving a healthy profit from farming or managing high-end real estate projects.
Army-run foundations, especially the Fauji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust, while officially dedicated to providing social welfare services to military veterans and their dependents, have in reality become Pakistan’s largest industrial conglomerates with assets worth billions of dollars (1).
Beyond safeguarding its own interests, the army aims to protect strategic industrial sectors (especially textiles, which accounts for more than 60% of Pakistan’s exports) (2), and stay in control of the country’s dependence on foreign lenders, ensuring that their demands are met. Since the late 1950s the military have become expert at negotiating this dependence, but it has serious domestic repercussions.
Selling arms for Ukraine to the US?
Online news outlet The Intercept recently reported, quoting Pakistani and US sources, that the US helped Pakistan secure a new loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) this June, in return for selling the US arms for Ukraine (3). This military cooperation is also thought to have allowed Pakistan to repress the PTI undisturbed, yet another demonstration of the army’s ability to use foreign conflicts to strengthen its position domestically (as it has done with wars in Afghanistan since the 1970s).
This claim, firmly denied by Islamabad, which is officially neutral on the Ukraine war, has yet to be confirmed. But what is certain is that the IMF’s $3bn bailout has given the army breathing space – which it has used to brutally reassert its grip on the country, amid deafening silence from the US and Europe.
Though this financial rescue package has replenished the state coffers, it runs a serious risk of fuelling social conflict in a country suffering from steep inflation (nearly 27% as of October) and a general economic slowdown. In 2022 GDP growth fell from 6.1% to less than 0.3%. Companies are laying off workers en masse across services and industry, especially in textiles.
Soaring gas and electricity bills could be the last straw for Pakistanis. Raising energy prices is one of the conditions the IMF imposed in return for the bailout: Shehbaz Sharif’s government promised to increase the price of gas by 50%; that of electricity had already gone up by 76% in 12 months. Higher bills are all the harder to bear because there are also long power cuts, sometimes up to 16 hours in a day, which force business and households to use generators.
Popular anger began to show in early September. A civil disobedience movement encouraging electricity users to stop paying their bills started in Azad Kashmir, in the northeast and spread to major cities across the country. In Lahore, Rawalpindi, Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar, people burned bills and blocked roads. Some protests became riots.
Faced with simultaneous crises – political, economic and environmental (there were catastrophic floods in June-October 2022) – many Pakistanis are emigrating. In the first six months of 2023 more than 800,000 left to seek a better life elsewhere. For some, that dream has ended in tragedy: nearly 300 Pakistanis were among the hundreds drowned when a trawler carrying migrants sank off the coast of Greece in June.
(1) Ayesha Siddiqa, Military Inc: inside Pakistan’s military economy (2nd edition), Pluto Press, London, 2016.
(2) Laurent Gayer and Fawad Hasan, ‘Pakistan’s coercive sweatshop capitalism’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 2022.
(3) Ryan Grim and Murtaza Hussain, ‘US helped Pakistan get IMF bailout with secret arms deal for Ukraine, leaked documents reveal’, The Intercept, 17 September 2023.