On May 9, 2023, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested over corruption charges during his court visit in Islamabad. This sparked nationwide protests, leading to internet blockages across the country. The arrest follows longstanding tensions with and attempts to apprehend Khan, adding to Pakistan’s already escalating political and economic crises.
To offer insights about the implications of Khan’s arrest for Pakistan, the Atlantic Council’s Pakistan Initiative asked experts to react to recent developments below.
To learn more about the arrest, tune in below with Pakistan Initiative Director Uzair Younus.
Pakistan’s self-created vortex
Just when one imagined Pakistan could not sink further into an economic and political morass, its leaders, civil and military, appear to have come up with yet another unnecessary crisis. The use of the military to arrest former Prime Minister Imran Khan in the sacrosanct confines of the Islamabad High Court reflects the inability of Pakistani political leaders to provide a coherent strategy to fight its economic and political woes. It also represents the inability of its military leaders to resist political engineering.
If the ultimate aim is to rid Pakistani politics of Imran Khan, then the storm that appears to have been unleashed may produce unintended and unmanageable consequences. The military’s calculations appear to hinge on expectations of a declining trend of Khan’s popularity and an inflated view of its own ability to ride out street unrest. What it may not have calculated is the cumulative effect of unrest on the national economy, currently gasping for air and heading toward hyperinflation and default, as well on its own rank and file. Will schisms emerge within the military? Or, will the unrest and mayhem serve as an excuse to postpone, perhaps indefinitely, the provincial and national elections ordained by the Constitution? Pakistan can ill afford a coup on the Egyptian model. If that were to occur, the country would struggle to survive an extended period of chaos as an economic and political pariah.
A fascinating picture of absences from Pakistan emerged this week. The prime minister had repaired to London for a coronation and extended his stay while Pakistan was burning. He returned to Pakistan and addressed the nation on May 10, 2023. The army chief was in the Gulf, if one could believe the information on FlightAware for his personal aircraft. The caretaker chief minister of the powerful Punjab province was also abroad when the drama unfolded.
Who was in charge? Who took the decision to allow a relatively small rampaging mob to break into and torch the Corps Commander House and the Governor’s House in Lahore? Where did their guards go? And where were the military guards that abandoned the gate leading to the army headquarters in Rawalpindi to the mob? Who allowed the mob to “liberate” the headquarters of the Frontier Corps at the Bala Hissar fort in Peshawar? Some pundits opined that this was a master plan of subterfuge that has yet to unfold. Social media had a field day adding to the confusion with colorful conspiracy theories till the pulling of the plug on the internet slowed their dissemination. But the images shared by hundreds of participants in the rioting created the impression that the military was being challenged with impunity by mobs of youth and angry women. Abandoned military check posts in some military cantonment areas remained a puzzle. Only a day later did the provincial authorities in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa seek military assistance in aid of civil power.
In one fell swoop, Pakistan has managed to hurt its stability more than any enemy action could have achieved. Will its leaders speak out now and take responsibility for the shambolic mess that unfolded on May 9, 2023? The silent majority of Pakistan that is suffering the effects of poor governance and secretive decision making deserves some quick and clear answers. So do Pakistan’s friends abroad, who want it to return to a path of stability and development.
Shuja Nawaz is a distinguished fellow and the founding director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, Washington DC. His latest book is The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood. Website: www.shujanawaz.com. On Twitter: @ShujaNawaz.
Pakistan has already been impacted by increasing political and economic instability, which will continue to exacerbate the funding challenges for startups
In the wake of the recent developments in Pakistan, the suspension of mobile broadband usage “indefinitely” by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority as well as the restriction and blocking of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube has an immediate and adverse effect on the country’s technology sector and startup ecosystem. Not only are Pakistani startups reliant on these platforms for new user acquisition and growth of their companies, but many Pakistanis are mobile first in how they engage with the digital economy, meaning their ability to leverage technology to access startups solutions for financial services, mobility, food, commerce, and other areas has been hindered and halted. Moreover, given that international perceptions of Pakistan have already been impacted by the country’s increasing political and economic instability, this will continue to drive a negative narrative of the country in the minds of investors globally, which will only exacerbate funding challenges for startups in Pakistan.
Kalsoom Lakhani is a non-resident senior fellow at the South Asia Center and co-founder and general partner of i2i Ventures. On Twitter: @kalsoom82.
Pakistan needs to finalize an IMF deal and sort out external financing if the country is to avoid default beyond June
Over the past eighteen months, every major power player in Pakistan has demonstrated a willingness to disregard the rule of law and national interest to strengthen its claim to power. This ugly fight has looked uglier as it has played out in lockstep with an economic meltdown that has led to 40 percent inflation this year. The country is seeing an endemic of personal tragedies played out over and over, triggered by normal citizens descending rapidly and seemingly hopelessly into poverty—from fathers killing children they cannot feed before taking their own lives, to stampedes in food lines.
Pakistan needs to finalize an International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal and sort out external financing if the country is to avoid default beyond June. For months, it has suffered not only from gross internal mismanagement, but a lack of coordination between its most important creditors—the IMF, the Chinese government, and its allies in the Middle East.
On May 6, 2023, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang put it bluntly while he was in Islamabad: “We sincerely hope the political forces in Pakistan will build consensus, uphold stability, and more effectively address domestic and external challenges so it can focus on growing the economy.”
Two days later, the wildly popular former Prime Minister Imran Khan has been jailed, bringing his followers into direct and physical conflict with Pakistan’s powerful military, which is seen as being behind Khan’s fall from office.
One can only wonder what Pakistan’s creditors in Beijing, Washington, Riyadh, and elsewhere must be thinking about this latest chapter in a sordid tale of economic mismanagement and intemperance in managing the country’s affairs.
Put bluntly, default appears near certain unless unprecedented corrections are embarked on over the next few days.
Ali Hasanain is an Associate Professor of Economics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. On Twitter: @AliHasanain
A Pakistani journalist’s guide to survival
Spare a thought for the journalist. Not the Whatsapp-as-a-source, vlog-from-the-basement kind of journalist, but the reporters, camerapersons, producers assignment editors, and desk editors who just want a normal country. It’s been a year since politics in Pakistan have been high on amphetamines with a generous sprinkling of LSD. They are exhausted, they are underpaid, and their stories are shaped by everything other than news value.
Just last Sunday, Sindh-based reporters were deployed to cover the local bodies elections. The stakes are high, particularly since these could offer control over Pakistan’s largest and richest city—Karachi—and as a bellwether for general elections. The local body polls have already been subject to intense legal contestation for several months. One reporter told me how his story on irregularities during polling in one station was dropped by his channel because it did not suit that channel’s agenda. Sometimes, reporters are asked to find evidence to fit a pre-determined verdict.
But what is a journalist to do when the biggest story after Khan’s arrest isn’t his first photograph in detention (yes, that’s a scoop, but a transient one), but the protests and riots that have erupted across Pakistan targeting military-owned property? I keep hearing the word “unprecedented” on international channels and social media, but only condemnation rather than nuanced context on local media. More glaringly, the visuals of protestors breaking into General Headquarters or marauding the guest house of the Lahore corps commander (that came to symbolize the post-Khan arrest reaction from his supporters) cannot be broadcasted.
I met a media manager the day after, his phone buzzing with calls from one of his bureau chiefs. “I asked him to divert the calls pressuring him to stop coverage to me,” he said, without naming who, although we both knew who he was referring to. It’s a code that doesn’t need deciphering any more. “We find ways to slip coverage into a show or a bulletin, and then run with it.”
Journalists have gotten really good at finding ways to cover the unnamed and unnameable in the last five years. For example, when one anchor couldn’t play clips of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accusing the former army and intelligence chiefs of political manipulation, he read a carefully curated transcript on his show. Others have found solace, and subsequently legal and physical threats, through social media.
But the pockets of resistance are still small, given that political allegiance is safer and more lucrative than independent reporting. By and large, mainstream television—and to a lesser extent newspapers—have learned their lessons the hard way. On the day the press wing of the armed forces released a statement condemning Imran Khan’s accusation against a serving military officer, I was on a television show with other analysts. Two of the analysts knew their over-the-top sparring in favor of their preferred political parties would be great for ratings, so they kept at it for the bulk of the show. As soon as they were asked to comment on the military’s press statement, there was a pause, and suddenly it was hard to tell the two apart.
Amber Rahim Shamsi is the director of the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA Karachi. On Twitter: @AmberRShamsi
The South Asia Center (SAC) is the hub for the Atlantic Council’s analysis of the political, social, geographical, and cultural diversity of the region.
At the intersection of South Asia and its geopolitics, SAC cultivates dialogue to shape policy and forge ties between the region and the global community.
SouthAsiaSource May 3, 2023
A conversation with Fawad Chaudhry, senior member of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf
By Fawad Chaudhry and Wajahat Khan
South Asia Center non-resident senior fellow Wajahat Khan interviewed Pakistan’s former Federal Information Minister for Broadcasting and senior member of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Fawad Chaudhry.
SouthAsiaSource Mar 22, 2023
Experts react: Elections postponed in Pakistan’s Punjab province
By South Asia Center and other experts
On March 22, 2023, the Election Commission of Pakistan announced a decision to delay elections in Punjab, the country’s most populous province. We asked experts to react to this decision.
SouthAsiaSource Mar 6, 2023
Amid Pakistan’s political and economic turmoil, risks to curbs on digital freedoms grow
By Uzair Younus
Growing polarization and instability in Pakistan have increased the likelihood that as elections draw near, curbs on speech, largely limited thus far to television channels, may extend to internet platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.