The violence has subsided and the politicians are negotiating, but the protesters are still asking for the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was elected only last year.
Democrats here, as well as much of civil society and the media, insist that the power-hungry military has something to do with this crisis. They suspect it of supporting the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan and the anti-Taliban cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, the two marginal but influential politicians behind these unprecedented demonstrations, in their bid to take down the government.
This is true, but it is only half the truth. Of course, Pakistan is partly a praetorian state and the generals would like to see Mr. Sharif go. But the military has not manufactured the anger that is visible on the streets of Islamabad. Whatever the motivations of the protests’ leaders, or of their behind-the-scenes backers, the people’s grievances are only too real. Pakistani democracy is on its knees.
For more than three weeks, Islamabad, the country’s otherwise pristine capital, has been overrun by tens of thousands of demonstrators. Sweltering heat, torrential rain, food and water shortages, inadequate toilet facilities, the resulting stench of excrement — nothing seems to deter the demonstrators from occupying the city’s so-called Red Zone, home to major government buildings including parliament and the prime minister’s official residence. For over two weeks, the sit-in remained peaceful. Then on Aug. 31, when protesters decided to move in front of Mr. Sharif’s residence, the government cracked down. That triggered 48 hours of violence, which killed three people and wounded at least 500, including dozens of police officers. Hundreds of protesters were arrested.
Thousands of people remain on the streets of Islamabad while a delegation of opposition parties tries to broker a settlement with Mr. Khan and Mr. Qadri. (The 11 other political parties in Parliament, including the main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party led by former president Asif Ali Zardari, have rallied around Mr. Sharif.) The idea would be to leave Mr. Sharif in office, at least for now, but address the protesters’ demands for reform.
Mr. Khan claims that last year’s election was rigged at Mr. Sharif’s behest and is demanding his ouster, electoral reforms and new polls. Mr. Khan is a sore loser. His party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, won 35 of 342 seats in Parliament and control of the government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, which borders Afghanistan. But Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which is war-torn and poor, is an inadequate vehicle for Mr. Khan’s ambitions, and so Mr. Khan has set out to dethrone the prime minister. In the process, this brazen Taliban apologist has infused ignorance and arrogance into the national political conversation. Between asinine references to his sporting career and crass allusions to Mr. Sharif wetting his pants, Mr. Khan has advocated tax evasion, lawlessness and money laundering as forms of civil disobedience against the state.
Inconveniently for the prime minister, Mr. Khan hails from the same power base: the urban, densely populated, affluent swathe of North Punjab, which stretches from Lahore, the provincial capital, to Islamabad and accounts for well over a quarter of the seats in Parliament. North Punjab is the military’s recruiting ground and the historical beneficiary of its dominance. North Punjabis, roughly one-third of Pakistan’s entire population, are the country’s premier citizens. They dominate its political, military and bureaucratic elites, its unruly media, its civil society.
Over the years, Mr. Sharif has gone from military protégé to ardent democrat. This transformation is popular with Punjabis, which means he is now less vulnerable to being deposed by the military. On the other hand, it has created space for Mr. Khan to represent the region’s pro-military sentiment. Had protesters, or political leaders, from Pakistan’s smaller provinces displayed as much gall as Mr. Khan has, they would have been put back in their place with swift brutality. But just as the military cannot afford to carry out a direct coup against Mr. Sharif, Mr. Sharif must tolerate Mr. Khan and his supporters.
Mr. Qadri, the cleric, is an altogether more complex entity. His party boycotted the election last year, and now he is calling for a revolution to bring about genuine democracy. A fiery orator, Mr. Qadri spouts powerful rhetoric about social exclusion and disempowerment, and oversees a broad-based alliance of persecuted Shiite and anti-Taliban Sunni Muslims. His supporters — a pious and literate cross-section of society — makes up much of the crowd at the sit-in: It was the unprovoked June 17 attack by the Sharif-controlled police on Mr. Qadri’s headquarters in Lahore, which killed 14 people, that provided the impetus for the protests.
That murderous attack, and the government’s initial refusal to allow the victims’ families to file a complaint against the prime minister and other officials, touched a raw nerve among ordinary people: It was yet another abuse of the criminal justice system. The use of the police, judiciary and administration for partisan purposes makes a mockery of claims that with democracy comes the rule of law. And it does far more to delegitimize the democratic project than any power-grabbing plot by the military.
After the election last year, Mr. Zardari, who was then president, transferred power to Mr. Sharif despite uncertainties surrounding the margin of Mr. Sharif’s victory, partly in order to forestall the possibility of a military intervention. But today the protesters regard that move, and Mr. Zardari’s support for Mr. Sharif, less as a sign of his commitment to democracy than as more wheeling and dealing within an entrenched political elite.
This view would be less persuasive if the political elite had spent more time trying to fix Pakistan’s broken governance system by encouraging political participation and restructuring state institutions to be less unaccountable, partisan and violent. But the politicians have only let the authority of the state crumble further, and the citizenry is increasingly frustrated.
Grandstanding about the supremacy of civilian rule is no substitute for addressing the root causes of Pakistan’s dysfunctions: the denial of justice and rights, growing inequity, insecurity, a distrust of state institutions. Pakistan needs electoral and judicial reform, an overhaul of the criminal justice system and the creation of elected local government institutions.
A weakened Mr. Sharif may manage to cling on to office for a little while longer by ceding yet more power to the military. But when you preside over a bully state, eventually the biggest bully on the block will kick your teeth in.
Ali Dayan Hasan is a Pakistani human rights activist.